Recovering Our Nerve

Recovering Our Nerve

Mini Teaser: "Getting the wind up", is an old British expression for panicking.

by Author(s): Niall Ferguson

"Getting the wind up", is an old British expression for panicking. To be "windy" in the trenches during World War I was to be openly terrified. Since the graphic revelations of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Washington, dc, has replaced Chicago as America's windy city.

But it is not just America's political elites who have got the wind up. To judge by the most recent opinion polls, nearly half the electorate feels the same way. As many as 50 percent of voters say they would like to see American troops wholly or partially withdrawn from Iraq, and soon. The starting point for any serious analysis of America's predicament must be that this is not a serious option. Sometimes, to borrow a more recent British catchphrase famously used by Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative. That lady was not for turning. This president must make sure that the wind blowing through the nation's capital doesn't turn him either.

First, let's refresh our collective memory. It was right to overthrow Saddam Hussein; the biggest defect of American policy towards Iraq was that the task was left undone for twelve years. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emption is eminently sensible and has good historical precedents. But the overthrow of Saddam wasn't pre-emption; it was post-emption, since he had done all the mischief of which he was capable some time before March 2003.

Continuing with "containment"--the implicit alternative proposed by France and others last year--would have been a worse policy. The regular Air Force flyovers and strikes were expensive and indecisive. Sanctions were simply impoverishing ordinary Iraqis. The United Nations' Oil-for-Food program was a screaming farce that did nothing more than to entrench Saddam in power. Regime change was not the Bush Administration's invention; it had been U.S. policy since 1998. We should all be glad Saddam is gone, as are most Iraqis. The most vociferous critics of the Bush Administration cannot seriously wish him back in power.

So what went wrong? We all need to admit that mistakes have been made, some of them grave. I count seven.

1. In planning for a war to topple Saddam, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did a brilliant job. But in planning for the peace that would follow, he did a dreadful job. The wild over-optimism on the part of key Washington decision-makers about the way Iraqis would welcome an American occupation was inexcusable. Anyone with any historical knowledge of the region could have foreseen that there would be small but dangerous pockets of resistance. Those who made light of the task of postwar reconstruction--who argued as if it would be a spontaneous consequence of Saddam's deposition--screwed up. And note that it wasn't only the Iraqi exiles and the neocons who believed the "liberators" would be showered with "flowers and sweets"; even Tommy Franks anticipated getting troop levels down to 50,000 after just 18 months. Only the State Department appears to have had a serious plan for the postwar period, and only Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to have understood that this was an implicitly imperial undertaking. As he told President Bush, the Pottery Barn rule was always going to apply in Iraq: "You break it, you own it."

2. In arguing that Saddam Hussein definitely possessed weapons of mass destruction, Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA Chief George Tenet and ultimately George W. Bush himself--to say nothing of Prime Minister Tony Blair--did us all a disservice. It would have been perfectly sufficient to have argued that, after all his obfuscations, it was impossible to be sure whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. On that basis, the war could have been adequately justified on the precautionary principle. But when Cheney declared that "Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction", he was going far beyond a legitimate interpretation of the available intelligence. The subjunctive exists for a reason. He might have possessed them; we simply didn't know. By claiming we did know, Cheney gave America's critics a hostage to fortune. By echoing Cheney's certainty, Bush added another hostage. By reassuring Bush that it was a "slam dunk case", George Tenet added yet another. Even Colin Powell added to the impression of certainty in his presentation to the UN. As for the alleged links from Saddam to Al-Qaeda, there was scarcely a shred of credible evidence for such assertions.

3. Diplomacy can proceed on more than one track, but the tracks need to run in the same direction. With respect to the role of the United Nations, the Bush Administration went down two completely opposing tracks. One (Cheney's) was to regard the UN as irrelevant. The other (Powell's) was to regard it as indispensable. One or other of these policies might have been successful. But a hybrid of the two was bound to fail. By pitching for a second UN resolution, having failed to conclude 1441 with an unequivocal threat of war, the Bush Administration handed the French government a big, baguette-like stick with which to beat the United States over the head. And it did so at the very moment that the majority of European governments had written letters pledging their support for a U.S. invasion! This was simply bad diplomacy; it was in turn a function of the State Department's failure to win the Washington turf war.

4. It was probably unwise to flout the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo Bay; it was certainly fatal to indicate to military prison warders that it could be flouted in Iraq as well. We have since reaped the whirlwind sown by those decisions. Evidence of torture and gratuitous abuse at Abu Ghraib have done more than anything to discredit the claim of the United States and its allies--introduced as a subsidiary casus belli rather late in the day--to stand for human rights and the rule of law.

5. It was a mistake to set a June 30 deadline for the handover of power to an Iraqi government. The moment that deadline was set, the incentives for ordinary Iraqis to collaborate with the CPA became much weaker.

6. It was a blunder not to let the Marines finish off the Ba'athi rump at Fallujah. Nothing could have done more to affirm the credibility of American arms. Now it has been established that if you hole up in a city with enough guns and RPGs, the United States will negotiate with you. It may even try to co-opt you.

7. Finally, it was madness to execute a volte face and call in the United Nations in the belief that it might help legitimize the handover of sovereignty. All that UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has done so far has been to undermine the credibility of the quite adequate system established by CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer. What was wrong with the Iraqi Governing Council? What was wrong with the basic law upon which it (miraculously) managed to agree? The arrival of Brahimi on the scene has threatened to nullify Bremer's achievements.

All of these mistakes have one thing in common. They betoken a failure to learn from history. Among the most obvious lessons of the history of modern imperialism is the lesson that an empire cannot rule by coercion alone. It needs legitimacy above all--in the eyes of the subject people, in the eyes of the other great powers and, above all, in the eyes of the people back home. Did those concerned know no history?

We know President Bush was reading Edward Morris's Theodore Rex as the Iraq War was being planned, but had he not got to the bit when the war in the Philippines turned nasty? We know that his speech writer Michael Gerson has a sense of historical perspective and looked back at least as far as Truman when drafting the President's West Point speech of June 2002. But didn't he get to the part when Truman abandoned hope of victory in the Korean War, partly in deference to the overblown anxieties of America's allies? We know that Donald Rumsfeld has recently read a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. But hasn't he got to the miserable epilogue about the reconstruction of the South?

Note that all this worthy reading has been concerned exclusively with American history. But just how much can American history tell anybody about the problems of governing Iraq? Last year, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was heard to refer to a purely unilateral American invasion as "the imperial option." Did no one else grasp that occupying and trying to transform Iraq (with or without allies) was a quintessentially imperial undertaking--and one that would cost money and take many years to succeed? Why did nobody bother to read about the last Anglophone occupation of Iraq? Couldn't Tony Blair have lent the president the letters of Gertrude Bell?

Well, we are where we are, and the clock cannot be turned back. The question is: What is to be done now to bolster sagging morale at home--the traditional Achilles' heel of the American empire? The President has evidently been advised that sacking his own Defense Secretary at this juncture might do more harm than good. Having initially succumbed to a very British impulse to wave my order paper and bay for his resignation--frankly, I think I had the wind up--I am now less sure. It was not the Viceroy who resigned after the Amritsar massacre in 1919; it was the officer responsible who was hauled over the coals. Those who must answer for the events at Abu Ghraib are, by analogy, the officers in charge.

Essay Types: Book Review