Hollow Point

by Noam Scheiber | July 11, 2005

The last few weeks have produced two main avenues for criticizing the war. The first is the series of Bush administration missteps driving the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The second is the Bush administration's apparent determination to "fix" intelligence around its decision to go to war, as described in the so-called Downing Street Memo.Democrats and independent-minded Republicans have mostly picked up the first criticism. As Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel told U.S. News %amp% World Report last week, "The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq." And, politically, it's pretty clear why critics would prefer this line of attack. The easiest way to reconcile your support for the war with the strategic and political disaster it has become is to blame flawed execution. But, intellectually, basing your criticism of the war entirely on the administration's mismanagement is dubious if you supported it in the first place. The more honest--and ultimately more damning--criticism would seize on the apparent doctoring of intelligence. The best example of how not to criticize the administration is a New York Times op-ed John Kerry published the day of President Bush's speech this week. "Our mission in Iraq is harder," Kerry wrote, "because the administration ignored the advice of others, went in largely alone, underestimated the likelihood and power of the insurgency, sent in too few troops to secure the country, destroyed the Iraqi army through de-Baathification, failed to secure ammunition dumps, refused to recognize the urgency of training Iraqi security forces and did no postwar planning." The problem with Kerry's argument is that there's a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto. Kerry is essentially accusing the administration of botching democratization. And, to be fair, the administration did begin by touting democratization as its goal when it didn't find WMD. Prior to the war, however, there was simply no indication that the administration intended to pursue democratization seriously. Recall, after all, that Dick Cheney spent the summer of 2002 asserting that American troops would be greeted by Iraqis as "liberators," the suggestion being that the postwar phase would be relatively smooth, certainly nothing that would require a costly, long-term commitment. Throughout August and September, defense correspondents like Tom Ricks of The Washington Post reported on Pentagon war-planning, which emphasized the civilian leadership's preference for a small contingent of relatively light, mobile forces--closer to 100,000 in number than the 500,000 troops mobilized for the first Gulf war. Then, three weeks before Congress's vote to authorize force, administration officials trekked to the Hill to suggest that the occupation would be relatively short and painless. "[W]e are certainly looking at the duration of any such mission with a goal of turning it over to international elements or back to the people as quickly as possible," said Colin Powell. "Nobody wants to go and stay for any extended length of time if it is avoidable." Donald Rumsfeld predicted the administration would benefit from the cooperation of ordinary Iraqis. "[M]aybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think the Iraqi people ought to have a voice in it," he said when asked about postwar planning. And all of this took place against the backdrop of Afghanistan, where the administration professed lofty ambitions about liberty and justice only to abandon the country to a rump force of international peacekeepers and several thousand American troops. "Afghanistan is a nation in name only," wrote the Post's Susan Glasser and Peter Baker in June of 2002. "It is fragmented into city-states dominated by warlords.... [A]s long as [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai exercises no control over the provinces, little can be done to rebuild his shattered country in a meaningful way." Responsible Democrats and Republicans might have hoped the administration would fight the kind of war likely to produce a stable and democratic Iraq. Delaware Senator Joe Biden went so far as to personally ask Bush to tell the American people what kind of resources that mission would entail. But, in reality, a war with these priorities simply wasn't the war the administration was proposing (though it would have been more than happy to see democracy as a serendipitous by-product). Which means that the actual calculation members of Congress faced at the time of the authorization vote wasn't whether they believed the administration intended to bring democracy to Iraq. It was whether or not they believed the threat posed by Saddam outweighed the very real risk that his ouster would be followed by chaos. If they did, they had an obligation to support the war. If they didn't, they had an obligation to oppose it. But, thanks to the administration's misuse of intelligence, this calculation was utterly meaningless. In a series of speeches in the fall of 2002, Bush asserted that the Iraqis had attempted to purchase aluminum tubes used to make a uranium-enrichment device and that Iraq had unmanned aerial vehicles that might be capable of targeting the United States. A White House report predicted that Saddam could build a nuclear bomb within months if he got his hands on fissile material. All of these claims proved to be false. Now, the Downing Street Memo tells us the administration knew its intelligence was flawed and didn't particularly care. Having to vote on a war likely to produce one type of threat (chaos in Iraq) in order to eliminate a potentially larger threat (a nuclear Iraq) is an unsavory decision. But it's the kind of decision we elect Congress to make. That's why voters didn't warm to Kerry's criticism of the war's execution during last fall's campaign--it was hard to believe Iraq had turned out so much differently than he had expected. And that's why they're not likely to warm to it today. But, in reality, the administration wasn't asking Congress to make a tough call in favor of war. It was asking Congress to make a decision that, had it been apprised of the actual intelligence on Iraq, would have been a no-brainer-- against authorization. That's the real scandal here. And, if people like Kerry and Hagel want to assign blame, then intelligence-fixing would be the place to start.

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