Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Okay, I haven't blogged about Iraq lately, and the latest issue of The New Republic gives me my excuse to do so. (I'd love to blog something gloating about the dispatch of Uday and Qusay Hussein - the first of the deck to actually be killed, rather than captured, by the way - but I'm saving that for the Ace of Spades.)

I've been a little frustrated with the state of pro-war commentary on the whole yellowcake bruhaha. It's pretty obvious what happened, and while it isn't terrible, it isn't wonderful either. It does reflect badly on the Administration, and I don't think saying "nothing to see here; let's move on" is a very useful response. But I'm even more annoyed with The New Republic for their new jihad against the Bush Administration for pursuing a war that TNR supported consistently and enthusiastically, and for all the reasons articulated by the Bush Administration in the run-up to war.

The Administration decided to go to war with Iraq probably in October of 2001. There were dozens of good reasons to go to war. There were also two distinct legal justifications for war that could legitimately have been used, without any new provocation and without any dance at the UN. Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate a former President of the USA. That's an act of war in my book, and fully justifies an invasion of his country with a specific mandate to capture him and bring him to justice. Let's put it this way: it's worse than anything Noreiga did, and we didn't ask anyone's permission before taking him out. And Saddam Hussein threw the UN's arms inspectors out of his country, in clear violation of his commitments under the 1991 cease fire. Which was, after all a cease fire; there was no peace after the first Gulf War, and if the cease fire was violated the US had every right to declare as much and retaliate, no further justifications or UN resolutions needed.

The problem, of course, is that these events happened in 1993 and 1998 respectively. And while there is no statute of limitations per se, it would look rather odd for the US to initiate a massive military campaign against Iraq in 2002 or 2003 in retaliation for Iraqi actions taken 5 or 10 years earlier. Inasmuch as these matters are generally tried in the court of public and international opinion, we would not have the strongest defense.

So the Administration set out to find another defense - another justification for war that would be persuasive internationally and domestically. Now there were numerous reasons to go to war, but many of them were not, let's say "in bounds" in the sense of being valid reasons to go to war by generally accepted just-war principles. Saddam Hussein was a Bad Man, ruler of one of the five or six most odious regimes on the planet. He was much worse than Slobodan Milosevic, much worse than Manuel Noreiga, to name two dictators at random. Capturing or killing him and removing his government would be a Good Thing. But it's not clear that this is generally accepted justification for going to war. More to the point, great powers are inclined to cut one another a certain amount of slack on this kind of question when the Bad Man in question is doing his Bad Things in what is clearly one power's sphere of influence. America did not ask permission to initiate Operation Just Cause (the war in Panama) nor to liberate Grenada 1983. NATO acted without UN approval in responding to Serbian attacks on Kossovo in 1999. But these actions were taken in America's and Europe's back yards. Were America to simply have said "Saddam's bad; time for him to go; here we come" this would have been understood as a bold attempt to declare that the Persian Gulf was now an exclusive American sphere of influence. Which was not the message we were trying to convey.

Another major reason to go to war was that it would get us out of a difficult diplomatic and military box. Several times in the 1990s, the United States had tried, in a half-hearted way, to eliminate Saddam's regime by proxy, and failed utterly each time. The sanctions regime, always leaky, was starting to break down; it was not plausible to maintain, indefinitely, an economic stranglehold on Iraq. (It wasn't very moral to do so either; the Iraqi people suffered more than usual under Saddam's tyranny during the sanctions regime, with no end in sight, while under the American military campaign their suffering was, relatively speaking, brief and contained.) Very soon, French, Chinese and Russian eagerness to trade with Iraq and end the ongoing standoff was going to overwhelm American determination to contain Iraq, the sanctions regime would end, and Saddam would be out of his box, having successfully waited out the USA. Moreover, so long as the sanctions regime and the no-fly zones and other aspects of the containment regime were in place, the United States was obliged to maintain a significant troop presence in Saudi Arabia, and periodically engage in damaging mini-wars with Iraq such as took place in 1998, all of which caused significant damage to our relationships with countries in the region and around the world. The US was losing the cold war we were waging with Iraq, and would could not simply give up. The obvious solution was to escalate to a hot war.

Yet another reason, though highly speculative, was the hope that a successful war in Iraq would be transformative upon the region in four ways. First, it would dramatically demonstrate American power and resolve. Saddam Hussein was the most prominent Arab and Muslim leader to defy the United States. His unequivocal defeat would send a clear message: America will not be so defied. Those inclined to be friendly to America would be heartened by this message, and more willing to rely on our help; those inclined to be hostile would be given pause, at a minimum. Second, it would give America the opportunity to help Iraqis build a functioning society and state that would show the Arab world the power of freedom and the ultimate good will of America towards them, and that could serve as a model for other Arab regimes to emulate. Moreover, it would remove a key source of pressure on more pro-American Arab regimes like Egypt and Jordan. Third, it would enable the United States to focus on the twin problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which were far more difficult to confront because of the need to contain Iraq. And fourth, it would open up the possibility of a renewed effort to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians by removing one threat to Israel (and Jordan) from the east (thus improving their geopolitical situation) and removing a significant sponsor and underwriter of Palestinian Arab terrorist groups.

All these reasons were good, substantive reasons to go to war. All of them were voiced by various members of the Bush Administration at one time or another, though some of them were never voiced by the President himself (which is appropriate; some of them are not the sorts of things Presidents ought to say). And all of them, as an aside, were voiced by The New Republic at one time or another as part of its campaign in favor of war. But none of them were "in bounds" justifications for war. We do not have carte blanche from our allies, much less our rivals and the great mass of unaligned nations, to do away with any regime we consider sufficiently odious. There is no recognized right to go to war because one is losing a confrontation short of war, nor is there a right to go to war with country A in order to make it possible to more effectively confront country B. (These are the sorts of points that Britain used to justify its entry into WWI, after all: Germany had illegally invaded Belgium, a neutral under British protection, in order to better wage war against France.) Nor do we have the right, by divine fiat or other, to go around attacking countries in order to show how serious and tough we are, nor how much we want to help them, really.

There were, in the end, only two in-bounds arguments for war that would have clearly been persuasive. One: that Iraq's regime was involved with al-Qaeda and September 11th, which would make war retaliatory. Two: that Iraq's regime posed an imminent danger because of its growing capacity to develop and deploy nuclear and biological weapons (and, to a far lesser extent, chemical weapons), which would mean Iraq's continued stonewalling of the UN inspections regime was no longer tolerable, and had to be terminated through war.

Some supportive intelligence existed for both claims. Iraq had trucked with terrorists in the past, and had worked with avowed enemies in Iran against the United States; there is no reason to think they would not work with al-Qaeda. Some low-level al-Qaeda operatives had fled to Iraq, and there was a camp in northern Iraq for training terrorists of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group. And there were persistent reports from Czechia that Mohammad Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague. (There have even been suggestions of Iraqi involvement in Oklahoma City and in the first WTC bombind.) But none of this was deemed solid enough to use as a primary justification for war. There was no smoking gun.

WMD seemed far more promising. The UN, the Clinton Administration, even the French all agreed that Iraq had had large stockpiles of chemical and biological arms at the end of the first Gulf War; all agreed that Iraq had been actively pursuing nuclear weapons before the Osirak strike in 1981 and before the first Gulf War in 1991, and that it was sensible to assume that Saddam continued his quest; and all agreed that the Iraqi regime had not revealed what it had done with all the forbidden weapons it was known to possess. It was reasonable to conclude that Iraq retained these weapons, continued to pursue nuclear weapons, and might be far further along than conservative estimates would assume (those estimates having proved inaccurate before, in 1991). Such debate as there was was over how much Saddam really could do to pursue these ambitions under the sanctions regime, and whether any of what all agreed he must have was actually *proven* to be in his possession.

Turns out, Saddam was bluffing us. There are no significant WMD in Iraq. It seems very unlikely to me that Saddam could have successfully moved major stockpiles out of the country before the war, as he did with his airforce in 1991. It seems even less likely to me that the weapons are somehow hidden in-country. The most likely explanation for what we know to be the case is that Saddam had no significant active WMD programs on the eve of the second Gulf War. We thought he did, and we were wrong. And the most likely explanation for why we thought he did is: he wanted us to think he did. He was trying to deter us from attacking him. He was bluffing.

So why do I think the yellowcake story is worth more than conservative scoffers give credit? Because the Administration's supporters of war clearly hyped every piece of evidence they could get their hands on to make the case for war. They did this because while the substantive reasons for war were strong, the official justifications for war were less strong, and these justifications were all that mattered to countries not inclined to support us in our endeavor. And if you were against the war - or were ambivalent about it - this, in retrospect, makes it looks like your worst fears are true: the whole thing was a lie, and clearly a lie for nefarious purposes.

Did the Administration lie? It looks like they technically didn't, but technical non-lies were the specialty of the last Administration; it's unseemly to see the folks at NRO resort to Clintonian excuses (and even more unseemly for them to turn to Clinton himself, as they did today) to justify the rhetoric. Domestically, Bush closed the sale on the case for war on September 11, 2001; the sale was closed for him by the attacks, and all he really had to do was deliver victory. (Which he did. Spectacularly.) Internationally, the sale was more difficult, and Bush didn't close it. And in the attempts to close it, he, and the supporters of war in his Administration, pushed intelligence beyond the limits of what it could reveal. Perhaps it should have been convincing enough to say: Saddam probably has WMD of various kinds, is likely trying to develop nuclear weapons as he has in the past, will never be completely defeated by a sanctions regime that can't last forever anyhow, and is a horrible, evil man. That's enough for me. But it was not enough for much of the world, and so the threat level was pumped up higher, rhetorically. *Estimating* a higher threat level - assuming the worst rather than the best - was the *right* course of action post-September 11. But *asserting* a higher threat level has exposed America somewhat, given that, in retrospect, the short-term threat was lower than estimated. I wouldn't make too much of the story; it isn't going to bring down the Bush Presidency. But it's not a phony story.

So why am I made at The New Republic for jumping all over it? Because they supported the damned war! Because they read Ken Pollack's book, too, and thought Iraq was an imminent threat. Because they know full well that uranium from Niger was not the be-all and end-all of the Administration's case for war, and they were not criticizing Bush in the run-up to war for making WMD an important part of the case. Because they haven't explained exactly how Bush *should* have handled the marketing of the war, how Bush was supposed to convince the rest of the world to go to war on the basis of the more cautious CIA assessments. Because they supported the damned war!

There are times I think TNR has no sense of reality. Bush made a judgement call, and it may have been a bad call. War supporters in the Administration clearly pushed for the most aggressive assessment of the Iraqi threat, and those assessments were broadcast as part of the Administration's case for war. Key parts of those assessments turn out to have been false. But unless TNR disagrees with my assessment above that there were many good reasons to go to war, but a narrower list of justifications - and they haven't shown any clear sign that they do - then I don't know why they think the Niger business is a scandal as opposed to a mistake. Eisenhower's lie about the U2 was a mistake, not a scandal. This is in that category.

Actually, of course, I do know why TNR is on the warpath over yellowcake. Because they are partisan Democrats. But I expect better from them, because they often deliver better.