What Bush Isn't Addressing on Iraq

It would be nice if, even once, the Bush administration addressed the case against its Iraq-and-terrorism policy, rather than relying on bromides and knocking down straw men.
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It would be nice if, even once, the Bush administration addressed the strongest version of the case against its Iraq-and-terrorism policy, rather than relying on bromides ("fight them there, so we don't have to fight them here") and knocking down straw men ("some say Iraqis don't deserve freedom...").

It probably won't happen. On available evidence, the President himself has not grasped the essential criticism of moving against Iraq when he did: that a war in Iraq undercut the broader and longer term war against Islamic terrorism. Not in one speech, not in one interview or off-hand remark, not in one insider account of White House deliberation has there been the slightest indication that President Bush recognizes this concept sufficiently to offer a rebuttal to it.

Someone who does recognize that distinction is Donald Rumsfeld, who raised exactly this concern in the famous leaked memo of two years ago warning that the United States might be creating terrorists even faster than it was killing them. But Rumsfeld has locked himself into permanent wise-guy mode, and it is hard to imagine him sitting still for a question long enough to answer it seriously.

Paul Wolfowitz's answer would also be fascinating to hear -- but he is off to other projects now. It offends the rules of karma that Wolfowitz should have received Robert McNamara-style job of absolution, tending to poor nations at the World Bank, without undergoing obvious McNamara-style torments about the effects of his grand vision to liberate a particular poor nation with U.S. troops. Colin Powell has also made a sweet karmic deal: he can be known as the most principled internal dissenter, without the muss and fuss of public dissent. And in a different way, Condi Rice has an attractive situation: she resolutely (and without nuance) defends the policy, without usually being blamed for it.

As for an answer from Dick Cheney, dream on.

So when the President decided on Friday to "respond to the critics" of his Iraq policy, naturally he did nothing of the kind. For the record, here are the three biggest, most obvious points not even addressed in his speech:

1) Everybody was not, in fact, working from the same misleading information. The administration's line about WMD these days is: OK, we might have been wrong -- but everybody was wrong, and everybody came to the same conclusion we did. The foreigners came to that conclusion through their intelligence services, and the Democrats (especially that weaselly Kerry and ambitious Hillary) did it when they voted for the war resolution.

But at the time, Administration officials were most emphasically NOT saying "hey, we're all operating in the dark here." The implied message of every briefing for reporters, every speech to the public, and every background session with legislators, was: If you knew what we knew, then you'd be as alarmed as we are. That was the message of Dick Cheney's statement that "there can be no doubt" that Iraq "now" had weapons of mass destruction, of Condi Rice's warning about the mushroom cloud, and of Colin Powell's presentation to the UN. The argument over Iraq's capabilities was by definition one sided, because the Administration's presumed insider knowledge trumped what anyone else could say. To pretend this was just a big widely-shared confusion is dishonest and wrong.

2) To say that Saddam Hussein might have been a threat is not to say that we had to invade when we did.

The Administration had two responses when asked in 2003 "what's the rush?" about beginning the invasion. One was logistical: the troops were in place, they couldn't wait forever, soon it would be hot (as if they would not be in Iraq thorugh many summers!). This obviously is a "Guns of August" style of reasoning: the trains are moving toward the front, so we might as well start World War I.

The other response was: we've waited 12 years, why wait any more? The answer to that was, first, that Iraq was now crawling with weapons inspectors, who at a minimum would make it hard for Saddam to cook up any surprise plans -- and, second, that beginning a war could touch off a lot of messy complications left out of the optimistic war scenarios.

This is the crucial point: Every aspect about managing occupied Iraq could have turned out better with more time. There would be more chance to line up Arabic-speaking or Islamic allies; more time to get adequate U.S. troops on the scene; more chance to think about protecting the power system, the hospitals, and other aspects of the public infrastructure; more time in general to ask "what if..."

3) As for managing Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, there is no shared blame at all. The Bush Administration owns every aspect of this disastrously bungled situation.

The failure to stop the looting; the deliberately low-ball on the number of occupying troops; the rash decision to disband the Iraqi army; the inattention to how quickly American "liberators" would become "occupiers"; the lassitude about recruiting or training enough Arabic speakers or getting serious about developing an Iraqi force -- on these and a dozen other familiar points, the Administration cannot possibly say, "Hey, everybody was wrong." These were the decisions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, in many cases bulldozing or ignoring contrary views from within the military and other parts of the government. Or, I guess the reality is: the Administration could "possibly" say this. They just couldn't say it honestly.

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