Dove Tale

By

As the situation in Iraq started deteriorating last year, I kept
waiting for war opponents to go after the liberal Iraq hawks. Months
went by, though, and the doves appeared more interested in slapping
around fatter and juicier targets like the Bush administration and
its starry-eyed neoconservative backers. I started to think we
might escape unscathed.But now it's open season on liberal hawks. A recent Nation feature,
by Ari Berman, attacks a coterie of liberal hawks who "found a way
to profit from its errors, coalescing around a view that its
members had been misled by the Bush Administration and that too
little planning, too few troops and too much ideology were largely
to blame for the chaos in Iraq." Meanwhile, the cover story in the
latest American Prospect chides pro-war pundits as "the
journalistic equivalents of Donald Rumsfeld--authors of disaster,
spared from accountability, still bewilderingly in place." (The
story focuses on conservatives but has a section on Thomas L.
Friedman, as a proxy for liberals who crusaded for a democratizing
war despite the fact that Bush had no intention of prosecuting the
war as they preferred.)

Well, OK, fair enough. Given that things have not gone terribly well
to date, a certain degree of humility is in order here. (In 2002
and 2003, I wrote a tnr cover story and a couple of editorials
defending the war in fairly strident terms.) I'm tempted to accept
the chastening and slink away. The trouble is that things aren't
quite as clear-cut as the doves would have it. And more is at stake
here than pundit bragging rights. The clear implication of this
dressing-down is the view that the Democratic Party needs to
nominate a war opponent in 2008 in particular and to stop listening
to its hawkish foreign policy intellectuals in general.

Obviously, Iraq remains dangerously unstable. But, even if, for the
sake of argument, we concede that the war is an abject disaster, it
doesn't necessarily follow that the liberal prescription was wrong.
Liberal complaints about mismanagement of the war have centered on
the Bush administration's refusal to send as many troops into Iraq
as the Army, and nearly any expert, thought would be necessary to
carry out an orderly occupation. Could more troops have really made
a significant difference? Yes, because, as The New Yorker's Malcolm
Gladwell has famously argued, sociological phenomena are often
governed by "tipping points" rather than proportional returns. This
is often the case with crime or other antisocial behavior, and it
seems to apply to Iraq. A sufficient number of troops would likely
have provided enough security to carry out reconstruction projects,
which would have reduced the supply of unemployed, desperate males,
which in turn would have created more political stability. Instead,
Iraq has endured a vicious cycle of insecurity, failed
reconstruction, economic stagnation, and political instability.

Many Iraq doves have dismissed this alternative as wishful thinking,
a way for liberal hawks to transfer the blame completely onto the
Bush administration and spare themselves. Yet the most prominent
advocate of this view, Larry Diamond, is not only the most
prominent expert on the subject (as a specialist on
democracy-building who consulted with the Coalition Provisional
Authority), he opposed the war in the first place. Obviously, we
can't know for sure how a competently executed occupation would
have fared. Yet the certainty of the doves has little to recommend
it. History is filled with examples of occupations--East Timor,
postwar Germany, and Japan--that had sufficient troops and did not
lead to the sort of chaos endemic in Iraq.

To this, the Iraq doves reply that we hawks should have known all
along that Bush wouldn't prosecute the war the way we wanted. The
administration's incompetence and devotion to fighting a war on the
cheap, they say, was blindingly obvious from Afghanistan, whose
rebuilding had already suffered from too few resources and
attention by 2003. But, I figured at the time, the invasion of
Afghanistan was executed within a matter of weeks. The buildup to
the Iraq war lasted far longer. And various government
agencies--State, Defense, and others--had engaged in copious
planning. When Bush and his mouthpieces blithely insisted the war
could be waged quickly and cheaply--even though authorities like
economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey and General Eric Shinseki had
confessed that the war might be costly and require a quarter of a
million troops--I simply thought they were lying. The
administration has routinely minimized the cost of its initiatives,
in order to keep deficit hawks from worrying about the size of its
tax cuts. Who could have guessed that, this time, the Bushies
actually believed their own propaganda? After all, the
administration appeared to have an excellent grasp of its political
interests, and obviously a chaotic Iraq would hurt Bush's
reelection campaign. It seemed logical to me that they would do
what they needed to do to safeguard their own standing.

I should probably note at this point that my argument for the Iraq
war, unlike that of many liberals, did not hinge upon
democratization. I wasn't sure creating a democracy in Iraq right
away was feasible, and I figured that the Bush administration would
settle for a stable, less repressive but still illiberal government
in Baghdad. My rationale hinged upon Saddam Hussein's failure to
disarm. While the weapons of mass destruction rationale has gotten
an even worse rap than the democracy rationale, I still believe the
logic made the most sense given what we knew at the time. Let me
explain.

The truce terms of the first Gulf war called for Saddam to dismantle
his weapons of mass destruction program under the watch of
international inspectors. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam played a
cat-and-mouse game with the inspectors, alternately extending and
withdrawing cooperation, depending mostly on how much diplomatic
and military pressure he faced. It reached a crisis point in 1998,
when Iraq stopped cooperating altogether. In response, the Clinton
administration ordered three days of bombing, but--in part due to
the impeachment--essentially let the issue drop. And, yet, even as
Clinton left office, the reasons for enforcing the truce terms
remained compelling. Iraq under Saddam posed a major regional
menace and harbored ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon. Saddam's
dreams of regional domination and history of irrational aggression
suggested that allowing him to obtain such a weapon would be
extremely dangerous.

Worse, containment was clearly breaking down. Iraq had successfully
rebuffed international inspectors, and the will to enforce economic
sanctions was rapidly eroding. As Brookings scholar and liberal
Iraq hawk Kenneth Pollack notes, "The oil-for-food program was a
massive sieve," allowing billions of dollars to filter up to Saddam
and his henchmen. Rather than toughen the weapons inspections, the
political pressure in the U.N. Security Council pushed in the
direction of weakening or altogether lifting the economic sanctions.
The "smart sanctions" enacted in May 2002 represented the Bush
administration's attempt to retrench weakening international
support--doing a better job at alleviating the suffering of Iraqis,
but not doing anything to stem the flow of cash and illicit goods
into Iraq.

The Bush administration recognized two basic truths. First, the
cycle of threats, partial cooperation, and confrontation would
simply go on forever until Iraq developed a nuclear weapon and (in
Saddam's view) could no longer be deterred. Therefore, the United
States had to demand full cooperation with the truce terms of the
Gulf war, not salami-slicing. Second, because economic sanctions
and bombings had failed to produce full cooperation, only the
threat of war had any chance of compelling it. Diplomatically, this
strategy unquestionably worked: By threatening to invade Iraq, the
Bush administration succeeded in forcing the U.N. Security Council
to demand renewed inspections.

A certain revisionism has taken root over the last couple of years
as to just what those inspections achieved. As most liberals now
recall it, Saddam was cooperating with the inspectors, yet Bush
short-circuited the process with a precipitous invasion. Nothing of
the sort happened. Saddam failed to provide a full accounting of
what had happened to Iraq's unconventional weapons, denied the
inspectors private interviews with scientists, and hid crucial
documents in private homes. As Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons
inspector, reported in January 2003, Iraq "appears not to have come
to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that
was demanded of it."

Subsequently, Iraq offered a greater degree of cooperation. It never
fully complied, though. And, despite the fact that Blix and nuclear
inspector Mohamed ElBaradei were making progress at tracking Iraq's
weaponry, there is only so much you can learn without the full
cooperation of the host country. (Inspectors thought they had a
handle on Iraq's WMD programs in the mid-'90s, too, until Saddam's
brother-in-law defected and revealed that his biological program
was far more advanced than the outside world thought.) The
"progress" reported by inspectors did not represent Iraq taking its
final chance to completely foreswear its WMD programs. Instead, it
was simply another example of Saddam strategically calibrating his
level of defiance. At moments of maximum pressure, Saddam would
come most of the way toward the demands of the inspectors, only to
relapse inevitably when the heat was turned down. His partial
compliance with Blix reflected the same strategic assumption that
he could simply wait out the United States and the Security
Council.

Saddam's goal was to split the Security Council and reveal the war
threat as a bluff. And, when French President Jacques Chirac
declared, in February of 2003, that "disarmament must happen
peacefully," he revealed that it was a bluff. France supported
tougher inspections only as a gambit to head off war. Even if Iraq
did not disarm, France (and, hence, the Security Council) would
never support an invasion. Had diplomacy and inspections continued,
they would merely have headed back into the same cycle.; "In
retrospect, going to war to save the world from a nonexistent
weapons program was an enormous mistake."

We all know, of course, that Iraq turned out to have abandoned its
weapons of mass destruction programs. In retrospect, going to war
to save the world from a nonexistent weapons program was an
enormous mistake. Yet the conclusion the most radical doves take
from this proves more than they think. Berman's Nation story acidly
notes, "It's more than a little ironic that the people who got Iraq
so wrong continue to tell the Democrats how to get it right." The
same article concludes, "Unless and until the [pro-war] strategic
class transforms or declines in stature, the Democrats beholden to
them will be doomed to repeat their Iraq mistakes."

Did the doves know this all along? There was a smaller, fairly
radical category of Iraq doves who did not share the hawks' concern
about Iraq's pursuit of WMD. They include left-wing icons like
George Lakoff and Michael Moore, who, unlike virtually the entire
Democratic Party, opposed the war in Afghanistan as well. They see
the Iraq war not as a departure from the broader struggle against
terrorism but as its apotheosis. (The Nation would fall into this
category, including Berman, who writes with evident disgust that
some Democratic centrists still want "to make fighting Islamic
totalitarianism the central organizing principle of the party.")
Many of these leftists never accepted that Iraq posed any
appreciable unconventional threat, and they can justly crow at
their vindication.

And, yet, their general record of foreign policy predictions is not
exactly stellar. Simply take The Nation as an example. Its
handwringing over the Afghanistan invasion--"airstrikes and other
military actions may not accomplish the ends we endorse and may
exacerbate the situation"--seems somewhat overwrought. Its fierce
denunciation of the war in Kosovo--"nato's war on Yugoslavia has
failed catastrophically"--has not worn well. And its editorial take
on the Gulf war--"Sanctions have a much better chance of forcing
Iraqi concessions in a shorter time and with much less misery than
war.... The death toll [from fighting] could rise to Korean War
levels, or higher"--missed the mark rather badly. So perhaps the
left should rethink this idea of choosing foreign policy
intellectuals on the basis of their predictive accuracy.

Most Iraq doves, though, did not share the Nation/ Moore worldview.
They shared the basic assumptions of the liberal hawks. In the
lead-up to war, almost nobody suggested that Iraq had completely
given up its WMD programs. While U.S. intelligence agencies did not
bear out the alarmist interpretation peddled by the Bush
administration, they--along with the major European intelligence
agencies--believed that Iraq still harbored biological and chemical
weapons and a nuclear program. Ted Kennedy believed it. ("The
biological and chemical weapons Saddam has are not new. He has
possessed them for more than a decade.") The New York Times
editorial page believed it. ("What really counts in this conflict
... is the destruction of Iraq's unconventional weapons and the
dismantling of its program to develop nuclear arms.") There was no
good reason not to believe it. Saddam had spent a decade thwarting
weapons inspectors and paid an enormous economic price for doing
so. Moreover, on two previous occasions (after the Gulf war and in
1995), Western intelligence discovered that they had been
underestimating Iraq's WMD capability.

It's this moderate liberal critique that didn't hold together. These
Iraq doves conceded that Iraq had a serious WMD program and
conceded that letting Saddam acquire a nuclear weapon would be a
disaster. Yet they assumed, against all evidence, that the rest of
the U.N. Security Council had a good-faith interest in enforcing
effective containment and that measures short of war would persuade
Saddam to abandon his WMD deterrent. We now know that Saddam was so
determined to keep his neighbors and his own people guessing about
his WMD capability that he endured a full invasion rather than
openly disarm. The moderate Iraq dove analysis, if anything, looks
far worse in light of what we now know. It just happens that the
moderate doves were bailed out for reasons they didn't foresee.

One way to think of it is to imagine a known murderer walking down a
dark alley with his hand stuck inside his jacket. The police shout
at him to put his hands up, yet he continues to walk toward them.
After he ignores still more warnings, they shoot him dead, only to
discover he was unarmed. Were they wrong to shoot him? Certainly
they should not have shot him, but based on what they knew at the
time, their decision was correct. It would be hard for those
arguing to hold one's fire to make a compelling case that their
advice ought to be heeded in the future.

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