Still Peddling Iraq War Myths, Ten Years Later

Paul Pillar

Documentaries, commentaries and forums marking the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War have been so numerous that they already have become tiresome, even though the actual anniversary of the invasion is not until next Tuesday. The repetition would nonetheless be worthwhile if it helped to inculcate and to reinforce lessons that might reduce the chance that a debacle comparable to the Iraq War will itself be repeated. Maybe some such positive reinforcement will occur, but a problem is that the anniversary retrospectives also give renewed exposure to those who promoted the war and have a large stake in still promoting the idea that they were not responsible for foisting on the nation an expedition that was so hugely damaging to American interests.

I participated in one anniversary event earlier this week: a loosely structured on-the-record discussion, organized by the Rand Corporation and the publishers of Foreign Policy, involving about twenty people who had something to do with the Iraq War, whether it was starting it, fighting it, or writing about it. The session had the admirable stated purpose of extracting lessons for the future rather than merely repeating old debates from the past. But a clear pattern throughout the event was that ten years have not diluted the house line of those most directly involved in promoting the war, including among others then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Douglas Feith, who as an undersecretary of defense was one of the most rabid of the war promoters. Not only did they give no hint of acknowledgment that this war of choice (and Hadley refused to accept even that characterization) was one of the worst and most inexcusable blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. They also stuck to the line that if there was any mistake in the origin of the war it was solely a matter of “bad intelligence” and that the only “lessons” to be learned were to distrust intelligence more or ask tougher questions about it.

Intelligence did not drive or guide the decision to invade Iraq—not by a long shot, despite the aggressive use by the Bush administration of cherry-picked fragments of intelligence reporting in its public sales campaign for the war. Multiple realities confirm this observation. I have addressed them in detail elsewhere, but it would be useful to mention briefly the main ones.

The neoconservative champions of the war were publicly pushing for the use of military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein even in the 1990s, when they were out of power. One they were in power in the Bush administration, the intelligence community was not saying to them anything about Iraqi weapons programs that was remotely close to an expression of alarm about such programs, much less a reason to go to war. In its public assessments and (as investigative journalists such as Bob Woodward have reported) in closed ones as well, George Tenet and the community barely even mentioned the subject as being worthy of the policy-makers' attention. Consistent with such assessments, Secretary of State Colin Powell was saying publicly in the first year of the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein was well contained and that whatever he might be trying to do with unconventional weapons, he wasn't having much success. It was only after the 9/11 terrorist attack drastically changed the mood of the American public and thereby created for the first time the domestic political base for the neocons to realize their regime-changing dream that the administration turned Iraqi weapons programs into a war-justifying rationale.

In rare unguarded comments, some promoters of the war let slip that this is how they were using the issue. Feith and Paul Wolfowitz each later admitted that the weapons of mass destruction issue was a convenient public selling point, not the reason the war was being launched in the first place.

Policy-makers in the administration showed no interest at all in the intelligence community's judgments about Iraq, regarding weapons programs or anything else, despite the assiduousness with which they exploited the fragments of reporting that could be woven into their public sales campaign. The administration did not ask for the infamously flawed intelligence estimate about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs—Democrats in Congress did.

Even that estimate did not support the war-making case. Among other things it contained the judgment that if Saddam did have any of those feared weapons of mass destruction he was unlikely to use them against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists—except in the extreme case in which his country was invaded and his regime about to be overthrown. If this judgment had a policy implication it was not to launch the war. The judgment directly contradicted—but did nothing to slow down—the administration's steady stream of scary rhetoric about how in the absence of a war Saddam could give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

Even if everything in the intelligence assessments about Iraqi weapons were true, this would not have constituted a case for launching an offensive war any more than it would have with China, North Korea, Pakistan, the Soviet Union or any other country which has developed nuclear weapons. This is indicated by the fact that even many people, both in the United States and abroad, who accepted the belief about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction nonetheless opposed the war.

Intelligence assessments on other aspects of Iraq constituted even less of a case for the war. In fact, some of the most important intelligence judgments were so contrary to the administration's pro-war case that the war promoters, far from being guided by those judgments, put considerable effort into trying to discredit them. (That's what the effort in the vice president's office that led to the criminal case against Lewis Libby was all about.) This was especially true of the intelligence community's judgments about terrorist connections, which contradicted the administration's phantasmagorical assertions about an “alliance” between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda. It was also true of the community's judgments—which turned out to be much more relevant to the painful experience that the Iraq War became than were any judgments about weapons of mass destruction—about the political, security and economic mess in Iraq that was likely to follow overthrow of the regime.

The story of the United States getting into the Iraq War was, of course, not just one of what led the war's promoters to seek a war but also of how they were able to get enough other Americans to go along for the ride. But despite how much many of those other Americans, including ones in Congress who voted in favor of the war, said they hinged their position on judgments about Iraqi weapons, intelligence did not drive or guide that part of the process either. Only a very few members of Congress bothered even to look at the infamous intelligence estimate on the subject. One of the few who did—Bob Graham, then chairman of the Senate intelligence committee—later said his reading showed to him that the intelligence judgments were not at all the same as what the administration was saying in its sales campaign. That inconsistency was one of the reasons he voted against the war resolution.

One can also do a thought experiment by imagining how events might or might not have been different if the intelligence work on this subject had been absolutely perfect. (That is well beyond the reach of even the most magnificent intelligence service, but it can serve as an imaginary reference point.) “Perfect” in this case could be equated with what was in the exhaustive post-invasion report later compiled based on exploiting all the on-the-ground evidence that had been unavailable to analysts before the war. That product, known as the Duelfer report after the officer who was in charge of most of its preparation, concluded that Saddam intended to reactivate his nuclear and other unconventional weapons programs once he got out from under the already-weakening international sanctions. If prewar intelligence assessments had said the same things as the Duelfer report, the administration would have had to change a few lines in its rhetoric and maybe would have lost a few member's votes in Congress, but otherwise the sales campaign—which was much more about Saddam's intentions and what he “could” do than about extant weapons systems—would have been unchanged. The administration still would have gotten its war. Even Dick Cheney later cited the actual Duelfer report as support for the administration's pro-war case.

And yet, despite the voluminous record that bad intelligence was not why the United States went to war in Iraq, the myth that it was persists partly because the war promoters also keep promoting the myth. The event in which I participated this week demonstrates this hazard of the ten-year anniversary happenings. An early write-up of the event correctly notes that there were “sharp exchanges” on this and other questions, but on this question only quotes the side of the exchange that came from Hadley and Feith.

If one wants to learn valid lessons from what happened ten years ago, the process back then was so pathological that many specific lessons about what to avoid in the future could be extracted. Many of those lessons could be subsumed into one observation: extraordinary as it may seem, there was no policy process at all—no options paper, no meeting in the White House situation room or anything else—that addressed whether going to war against Iraq was a good idea. So it was not only the intelligence community but also other sources of information and insight, inside and outside government, that were shut out from having any impact on the decision to launch the war.

Hadley denied this observation, too, muttering something about needing to keep things close-hold so as not to jeopardize the “diplomatic process.” That just raises another myth—that the administration was trying to solve a problem through diplomacy before resorting to force—that also is belied by a substantial record, leading up to the final days in which the United States kicked international arms inspectors out of Iraq and in effect said “never mind that we didn't get another UN resolution, we're going to war anyway.” What pretended to be interest in diplomacy was a charade intended mainly to placate Powell and the British.

TopicsCongressUNIdeologyNuclear ProliferationTerrorismWMD RegionsIraq

A Free(ish) Press Comes to Burma

The Buzz

Some may say print is dead, but one thing is sure: they haven't been to Burma. In just two short weeks the Burmese press will be free to print daily news for the first time in over fifty years, and local journalists (or largely, the young people who want to become them) are electrified with excitement. While their internet connections are shoddy, the would-be journos have been practicing for months, running off private daily editions of the Myanmar Herald and Rangoon Times in anticipation of the April 1 start date. Shanghai-based Jake Spring's piece for the Atlantic is a great window into this special and changing time in the Southeast Asian country. That said, not all will be smooth sailing. According to Spring:

The crush of new daily newspapers - most in the industry expect up to 25 to launch - must first clear regulatory hurdles. According to local reports, media regulators announced on Saturday that of 17 media companies that have already applied for daily licenses, eight have been approved for publication starting next month, six were denied and three remain under consideration. Despite the rejections, the government has yet to signal that licenses will be used as a gatekeeping mechanism to shut out critical newspapers. Among the rejected was Eleven Media Group, which publishes one of the highest-circulation weeklies. The group reported on its website that the rejection was based on a technicality, the lack of an official revenue stamp and failure to specify what the language of the publication would be. The ministry advised the group to reapply. Media leaders in Rangoon like Ko Ko said in mid-February they were certain the government would approve all completed applications.

TNI's Doug Bandow also rightly pointed that the licenses necessary to proceed with daily printing are controlled by state authorities who could revoke permission "as a tool for censorship." Certainly, the system is not flawless or even close, but it is a large and exciting step forward for Burma. As Chairman Ko Ko of Rangoon Media Group wisely said to Spring, "Today, our big issue is not thinking about making money." Probably a smart choice; that's pretty tough to pull off these days.

TopicsMedia RegionsMyanmar

The Vatican Conclave and the Selection of Leaders

Paul Pillar

The selection of a Roman Catholic pope is a fascinating, even if mostly occluded, political process. It ought to inspire some thinking about what is good and bad about our own process for choosing a top leader. Of course, a church is not a national government (notwithstanding the legally sovereign status of the Holy See), and some aspects of the selection process that may be appropriate for the former would not be for the latter. The cardinals, for example, are supposed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit in choosing a new pope. Given how much religion, contrary to the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, tends to get injected into American politics these days, this may not appear to be a point of major difference—but that is not one of the attractive features of American politics.

In some respects the cardinals' selection of a pope resembles how some cabinet or parliamentary systems, including in Europe, choose top leaders while differing from how U.S. presidents are picked. By choosing someone from their own ranks, the new leader is certain to be someone with already established experience, accomplishment and stature in the organization. There are no retail politics in the Vatican. One can argue for the virtues of American-style retail politics, but a major virtue of the alternative is to eliminate splashy but inept amateurs from consideration. The secrecy of the papal selection process probably would not fit most secular political systems, although until not very many years ago the Conservative Party in Britain chose its leaders, and thus a good number of prime ministers, through a process that was just as opaque to the public.

The feature of papal selection that perhaps provokes the most thought about comparisons and contrasts is that nobody runs for pope. The strong taboo against even the most papabile cardinals displaying any interest in, or ambition for, the job requires cardinals to find ever new ways to issue Shermanesque denials. When Timothy Dolan of New York was asked about talk mentioning him as possibly the first American pope, he replied that the talk was coming “only from people smoking marijuana”—a remark that the New York Post reported under the headline “Pope hope is dope”.

An argument could be made that fire-in-the-belly ambition is a desirable attribute for a person in a leadership position. Some American politicians have cited insufficient flames in their guts as a reason for not seeking higher office. But good performance is likely to correlate more with the view of senior peers that someone has the qualities to do the job well than it does with a person really, really wanting to have the job. Even good campaigners, not necessarily just avid ones, do not necessarily make good presidents.

The no-campaign method of selection also does away with all the compromises and bargains that are an inevitable part of campaigning for a leadership position. The Vatican taboos are pretty strict here, too. Cardinals cannot approach other cardinals who emerge as papal possibilities with offers of support on condition that certain policies be followed once in office.

Nor is there is much reason to think, as American presidential aspirants and other American politicians frequently do, in terms of the minimum majorities needed to win election. Another relevant factor here is the two-thirds majority needed to pick a pope. There will be no contemptuous dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate when 67 percent of the electors are needed to take office.

There is much else besides the selection process that shapes how the performance of popes is different from that of presidents. An obvious difference is that the selection is for life and popes do not run for re-election any more than they run for the office in the first place. That does away with all the negative aspects of a president or other office-holder putting re-election prospects ahead of the national interest in deciding on policies. We would not want presidents for life, of course—although there is a lot to be said for a Mexican-style, single six-year term without possibility of re-election. (Some Vatican watchers speculate that Benedict XVI's leaving office while alive will reduce this difference by setting a precedent for future popes who come to be seen as ineffective to be encouraged to retire too.)

Admittedly, most of what is admirable in how the Vatican selects its top guy is not readily transferable to how we select ours, even in respects in which it would mean an improvement. But the process of selecting U.S. presidents has changed greatly since the beginning of the republic, in ways that go well beyond constitutional provisions and are more a matter of custom, culture and habit. Those things could change some more in the future.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jastrow. CC BY 2.5.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyReligion RegionsUnited StatesVatican City

The Ever-Recurring 'Year of Decision' on Iran

The Buzz

Over the past few months, there has been a flurry of commentary claiming that 2013 will be a “year of decision” on Iran. (See, for example, Fareed Zakaria, Anne-Marie Slaughter and James Jeffrey.) In Zakaria’s words, this means that unless a diplomatic deal can be reached between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the country’s nuclear program, “2013 will be the year that we accepted a nuclear Iran or went to war.”

In the Financial Times, Nader Mousavizadeh provides some much-needed pushback against this now-conventional wisdom:

Far more likely, however, is a 2013 defined by another period of sustained stalemate, one driven by an unspoken preference on the part of all the key participants for a pragmatic equilibrium that excludes both war and peace. The see-saw of threats and talks, escalation and negotiation continues, inevitably leading to warnings of showdowns.

This is mostly all theatre. The reality is that for each of the principal parties, the status quo – Iran isolated diplomatically, crippled economically, boxed in militarily – is preferable to the available alternatives.

Mousavizadeh’s piece is a useful reminder that, as his title says, Iran’s “crisis is more stable than it seems.” Each of the relevant actors prefers the status quo to a potentially devastating war. But, he writes, a “genuine peace” also runs the risk of being seen on both sides as a capitulation. This is especially true of Iran, whose regime has for decades defined itself in opposition to America and the West. Thus, Iran’s incentive is to continue on its current path—building up its stockpiles of enriched uranium and drawing out the negotiations, while not taking any steps that are likely to provoke an American or Israeli attack, such as withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated today in his “Worldwide Threat Assessment” statement, the best assessment of the U.S. intelligence community continues to be that Iran has not made a concrete decision to pursue nuclear weapons, and “we do not know” if it eventually will. Washington obviously doesn’t like the ongoing standoff, but as long as Iran stays away from an overt decision to develop nuclear weapons—a step Clapper asserts we would be able to detect—there’s no reason that this dynamic necessarily has to shift in the coming year.

A look back at the relevant history reinforces this point. As others have chronicled, analysts and government officials have repeatedly been wrong when projecting the point at which Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon (the supposed “red line” that a war would be fought to prevent). In 1984, Jane’s Defence Weekly warned that Iran might have a nuclear weapon within two years. Throughout the next several decades, there have been repeated predictions from inside and outside the government about how Iran could get the bomb in two or five or eight years. To this point, they have all been wrong.

To be sure, 2013 could be a “year of decision.” Yet it’s just as likely, if not more, that this prediction will join so many other failed ones made about the Islamic Republic. Zakaria and the others are correct that eventually, something will have to change to break the deadlock. The problem is that eventually can be a long time.

TopicsDefenseNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity RegionsIran

The Egregious Joe Lieberman Heads to AEI

Jacob Heilbrunn

There is no shortage of windbags in the Senate. Nor is there ever likely to be one. But among his colleagues, Joseph Lieberman has stood out in out in recent years for his particularly grating blend of pomposity and hubris, prattle and sanctimony. Seldom has a Senator who has been wrong so often on foreign affairs trumpeted his alleged superiority more loudly. Whether it is Iraq or Syria or Georgia, the orgulous Lieberman seems never to have met a war he wouldn't like to fight. He is a champion about whining that his extreme views don't meet with greater approbation in the Democratic party.

Now Lieberman is heading to the American Enterprise Institute to co-chair a group with former Senator Jon Kyl called the American Internationalism Project. It is supposed to be bipartisan and set a new agenda for foreign policy. Lieberman and Kyl should spare themselves the work of assembling their little group. The conclusions are already preordained. Far from being bipartisan, it would require super-resolution microscopy to discover any real distinctions between Lieberman's and Kyl's views, not to mention AEI's. Lieberman, a preeminent neocon, should feel right at home there. There is nothing remotely bipartisan about his views. They are those of an unreconstructed neocon. His tenure at AEI will allow him to continue pontificate to a sympathetic audience about why he regards even mild opposition to his intransigent bellicosity as benighted obstructionism.

Lieberman's most egregious mistake, of course, has been not only to endorse the Iraq War, but also never, ever to acknowledge that it was a calamitous mistake, one that has stoked anti-Americanism around the globe, tarnished America's image, and led to the senseless deaths of thousands of American soldiers, who were sent improperly equipped into battle and became mired in fighting for...what?

No, Lieberman serenely overlooks what went wrong. Instead, when it comes to explaining the war, Lieberman's stance has been pure Cheneyism. Here he is engaging in obfuscation and denial in 2011 on the "Morning Joe" program:

Saddam was threatening the stability of the entire region. He’d shown that by his actions. I believe that the evidence is very clear that he was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Obviously we don’t have evidence that he had a big program. But the most official and comprehensive report show that’s true. He was also, the evidence shows, beginning really tactically to support the terrorist movements that had attack us on 9/11 and today, to make a long story short, instead of a brutally repressive dictator in Iraq, we’ve got a government that was elected, that’s self-governing and the country is self-defending. By the end of this year, we’re going to have most of our troops out of there. I think that’s had a major effect on the entire region. Iraq is now the most democratic country in the Arab world. so, yes, I think it was the right thing to do. Terrible cost we paid in life and treasure, but ultimately I think the right decision.

Obviously? The Bush administration claimed that it was patently clear. Didn't have evidence that he had a big program? There was no evidence that he had any program. Nor was there any that he was supporting outside terrorist groupings. Far from being friendly to America, Iraq's democratic government has been cozying up to Iran. Lieberman is purveying delusions, not realism. Like many neocon proponents of the war, however, he has refused to examine it forthrightly. Instead, he is purveying self-exculpatory ideological pap. The mind reels at the notion that he would now have the temerity to instruct America on its future course in foreign affairs. His counsel should be shunned, not followed.

Still, it is unlikely that he will retain much influence. Even if he commands some lingering stature in Washington, the correlation of forces, to use the old Soviet term, is shifting inexorably against him. President Obama, compelled by mounting budget deficits and the hideous costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is scaling back America's commitments abroad. Meanwhile, the GOP is starting to begin a painful reassessment of its own foreign policy stances that have, again and again, led to disaster. It seems safe to conclude that Liebermanism—the pose of ostentatiously pretending to be a beleaguered moderate internationalist while endorsing the most retrograde Republican foreign policy stances—is reaching its terminus.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastian Zwez. CC BY 3.0.

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States