Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Iraq War in Historical Context

There's a must-read new article by Robert Kagan, Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776, that puts the Iraq war in historical context. If you disagree with what I excerpt here, please - read the whole article.

The gist is that there is nothing new or maliciously neo-con about the Iraq war. The Iraq war is perfectly consistent with 200 years of American history, up to and including the Clinton administration and virtually all US legislators and the American public. And "there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries." Later, he says, "The expansive, moralistic, militaristic tradition in American foreign policy is the hearty offspring of this marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness."

Here's a little of what he has to say about the various players:

On critics of the war: "there was something more fundamental, and perhaps also more honest, about the debate over Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. When David Halberstam and others of his generation turned against the war, their objection went beyond personalities, tricks, and lies. The problem was not McNamara or Rusk or the misguided American military or the dishonest politicians. The “real problem,” Halberstam wrote, was more basic. It was “the failure to examine the assumptions of the era”—the widely shared assumptions about the nature of the Communist threat, about American interests in a place as far off as Vietnam, and above all, about the role of America in the world. It was the whole idea, which lay behind containment and the Truman Doctrine, of a “manifest U.S. destiny in the world,” the whole notion that the United States was the possessor of transcendent truth and was its best and only defender."

On public opinion: "The war was, as American wars go, immensely popular, both before and immediately following its launch—more popular than the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, or the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and about as popular as the Persian Gulf War of 1991. It remained popular even after weapons investigators discovered none of the suspected caches of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons materials or the programs that the intelligence services of two American administrations and several European countries believed were there. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in April 2003 found that, nevertheless, more than 70 percent of Americans supported the war, and a CBS poll revealed that 60 percent of Americans believed it had been worth the sacrifice even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. A month later, a Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans considered the war justified with or without conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction, and only 19 percent believed the discovery of such weapons was necessary to justify the war. The war lost popular support only as it began to look as if the U.S. military was bogged down in a seemingly endless and possibly losing effort."

On Democrats and Republican moderates in the Senate: "In 2002, those voting to approve the war included everyone with even vague plans of running for president in either 2004 or 2008—not only John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joseph Biden, but also Thomas Daschle, Tom Harkin, and Chris Dodd—as well as other Democrats who had no such plans such as Harry Reid, Byron Dorgan, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer, along with Republican moderates such as Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter. One can only speculate abut whether Barack Obama might have voted against the war had he been in the Senate in the fall of 2002. If Dodd and Harkin voted for it, either out of conviction or out of some distant thought of future presidential plans, would Obama alone have made a different calculation?"

On Bill Clinton: "...what has since been quietly and conveniently forgotten [is] that in 1998 the Clinton administration had changed its policy toward Iraq “from containment to regime change” and had begun “to examine options to effect such a change.” ...The Clinton administration had itself used force on several occasions, in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and, of course, against Iraq. It had used force without UN authorization. It had bombed and fired missiles into Iraq over the heated objections of France and other allies, and it had done so based on the same evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs that the Bush administration used to justify its war."

On Hillary Clinton: "When Clinton rose on the Senate floor to cast her vote in favor of the resolution “to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq,” the arguments she used were neither novel nor obviously disingenuous. ...Saddam Hussein, she noted, was “a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power.” He had used “chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds and on Iranians, killing over 20 thousand people.” He had “given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members.” He had “invaded and occupied Kuwait,” and when the United States withdrew its forces after driving him out, he had taken his revenge against Kurds and the Shiites “who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging.” ...[However,] she opposed a “unilateral attack,” for if the United States went to war “alone or with a few allies,” such action would “come back to haunt us.” International support and legitimacy were “crucial” because, “while the military outcome” was “not in doubt,” “after shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable.”"

On Obama: "When Barack Obama talks about foreign policy, he evokes not Chomsky but Kennedy and insists America must be the “leader of the free world.” It must lead the way “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” Its “larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.” He insists, in phrases that should appall any true realist, that the “security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” He wants to increase the defense budget, to expand the size of American ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines to ensure that the United States has “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.” He talks about “rogue nations,” “hostile dictators,” “muscular alliances,” and maintaining “a strong nuclear deterrent.” He talks about the “American moment” and how we need to “seize” it. He says we must “begin the world anew”..."



Yappa said...
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Yappa said...
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Yappa said...

The more I think about this article, the more I'm convinced. Partisanship, sheer disgust with the war and a disinclination for public mea culpa has led us to think that the Iraq war was the sole fault of Bush - a Neocon invention. In fact, it is the natural product of 200+ years of US history, of the US psyche, and of the historical frame of mind of Americans after 9/11. Had Bill Clinton been in power in 2001, he would probably have invaded Iraq as well. It's a pity that the author didn't give us any insight into what Al Gore might have done.

The $64,000 question is: Does any of that absolve Bush? And the answer is No. Bush is guilty of lying to Americans, the UN and the international community about the reason for going to war. He is guilty of invading a sovereign country without the backing of the country's neighbors - in fact the league of Arab nations condemned the act before it happened. He is guilty of not acting multilaterally (except for Britain, which has a "special relationship" with the US and seems to be stuck with tagging along) and a couple of dinky countries. Most importantly, he is guilty of completely mismanaging the war, making it a drawn-out quagmire of death and despair for the Iraqi people, increasing instability in the region, and destroying the US economy.

Bush's mistakes were multifold. There was no clear chain of command, and his inner circle (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice) were constantly in a power struggle. The disbanding of the Iraqi army was insane and seems to be done out of revenge. The manipulation of Iraqi law to give the US control of oil sources was criminal. The inadequate number of soldiers in the beginning made it possible for the insurgency to become powerful. The massive bombing of Iraqi infrastructure means that five years later there is still inadequate power and water. Atrocities by US soldiers against civilians and in prisons like Abu Graib and Guantanamo strip the US of any moral authority. Billions of dollars in US cash were allowed to be stolen. There was widespread incompetency in every factor of the operation.

Btw, Bush also totally screwed up the Afghanistan operation, going for an easy initial victory that was non-sustainable and that has led to years of fighting and no hope of success in the near future.

There is no reason to think that any of the other people who supported the war would have conducted the war in anything like such a monstrous, evil, and self-destructive way as Bush did.

That doesn't mean that the war was by any means justified. It was completely wrong and should never have happened. The fact that there was so much support for it in 2001-3 should lead all Americans to do some hard self-examining of what there is about the national psyche that causes Americans to kill so many people. I'm thinking it has soemthing to do with (to use Kagan's words) excessive idealism, blinding self-righteousness, hubris, militarism, overweening ambition, selfishness and greed.

We shouldn't make Bush the scapegoat and pretend that he and his buddies were the only ones to blame. After he illegally invaded Iraq, the US people voted him a second term in office. They supported the war.

The Mound of Sound said...

It's facile to suggest the Iraq war as just another extension of two centuries of American foreign policy. 1945 marked an important, crucial tide change in international law - the abolition of wars of aggression and the resolve to treat such wars as crimes for which there would no longer by any sovereign immunity.

Kagan knows that but he's being very successfully misleading by conveniently leaving it out. In doing so, he takes Iraq "out" of historical context because he knows people are gullible enough to buy his sophistry.

By the way, Yappa, just what nation led the world into this ban on wars of aggression? That would, of course, be the United States which used it to justify executing Nazi and Japanese leaders.

It was precisely because of this blanket prohibition on war of aggression that Blair tabled his final Security Council resolution authorizing war which he had to sheepishly withdraw when it was apparent it would be defeated.

Be very careful about swallowing the stuff that Kagan and those of his ilk profer. It's slimy and bitter.

Yappa said...

Hi mound -

Your point is well taken. Kagan is a Republican and an advisor to McCain, and the slant of the article suggests it could be part of a scheme to change the election coverage of the war.

In my post I dealt almost exclusively with his description of the American view of Iraq in the last ten years and I think he makes some good points. Whether it's true that Bill Clinton changed his policy to be one of regime change in Iraq, I really don't know.

The reason I was so taken with the article, I think, is that it made me begin to think that the way we've treated the war has allowed us ("us" being Americans) to not take the responsibility we should take for it happening. Bush has in a sense been scapegoated when it is the American people who caused this to happen - and that means we're not thinking about how to stop it from happening next time (in Iran, North Korea, or who knows where).

As I said in the comment above, there is still plenty to blame Bush for, but maybe the fact that Iraq was invaded is a little bit more complicated than it's being portrayed.

The Mound of Sound said...

What troubles me most about Kagan's type is that they're highly educated and, as such, are wilfully misleading. It's classic sophistry - the presentation of a persuasive, even compelling argument that is inherently false.
I don't necessarily place too much blame on the American people. They were traumatized by the events of 9/11 and that trauma was brilliantly exploited by a gang of ideological hoods.
If you read the manifesto of the Project for the New American Century ( the Neocons recognized, years before 2001, that they would need a catastrophe on the order of another Pearl Harbour to spring their agenda on the American people. bin Laden gave them just that and the two sides, al-Qaeda and the Bush neo-cons, have been propping each other up ever since.
I don't think Bush has been scapegoated although I suspect he allowed himself to be manipulated by the Neo-cons through that movement's leadership which included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowitz.
Do the American people deserve some responsibility in this? Perhaps, to the extent they allowed themselves to be duped, but we must remember that they were also the victims of a highly collaborative media. A traumatic event, powerful government propaganda and a media that served as the megaphone for that propaganda and, that special, uniquely American element - a reverence for their president and an ingrained need to believe - and the result was predictable.
There were a number of agendas being served in the invasion of Iraq and, if you believe Scott McClellan, one of those was Bush's yearning to 1) do what his father couldn't - win a second term and 2) serve as a real, shoot'em up, "Wartime President."
No, I don't believe Bush was scapegoated. I do believe that he, like Cheney and most of his cabinet, are war criminals and that they're personally responsible for enormous suffering and the deaths of, at the very least, tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
It's ironic that the very nation that destroyed the doctrine of sovereign immunity at Nuremburg, clings to its shroud itself half a century later.

Yappa said...

To mound -

I'm converted. (For the moment.) Thanks for your comments. I felt rather out of my depth on this topic.