Dirty Harry War
On Nov. 20, the Tribune began an inquest: We set out to assess the Bush administration’s arguments for war in Iraq. We have weighed each of those nine arguments against the findings of subsequent official investigations by the 9/11 Commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee and others. We predicted that this exercise would distress the smug and self-assured–those who have unquestioningly supported, or opposed, this war.
The matrix below summarizes findings from the resulting nine editorials. We have tried to bring order to a national debate that has flared for almost three years. Our intent was to help Tribune readers judge the case for war–based not on who shouts loudest, but on what actually was said and what happened.
Read it, and see what they concluded. It’s no surprise, actually. They simply read the speeches of the administration and the reports of the investigating bodies. It’s all public. Any sane person who did the same would likely come to nearly the same conclusion. It’s a shame so few have done the same.
The Trib is moderately Republican in its editorial policies — it endorsed Bush in 2004, but in doing so said more kind things about Kerry than did many newspapers that endorsed Kerry. But if in your mind that disqualifies or taints its findings in this case, then do you feel the same about every investigative series by the New York Times, the LA Times and the WaPo?
It wonders me that we still have to hash and rehash this business about the American people being "duped" by the administration -- whether willfully or by incompetence of spy agencies. It wasn't all that long ago, and I remember it well enough to retrace my own steps along the path that ended in my supporting an attack on Saddam. And I can go check the record of what I wrote over those months, which is another advantage of being a writer.
In October 2002 I was leaning against the idea. It didn't seem the right next move in the War on Islamist Terrorism. In November 2002, I was asking myself, "what if Bush is right," about Saddam's threats, and leaning toward supporting the overthrow of the butcher of Baghdad. But I was still insisting it ought to be done through the U.N., and with a broad coalition.
By February 2003, I was supporting the invasion and defending it against the zombie armies of Moore and Chomsky. So was I duped by Bush? No, because what informed that decision was my consideration of the humanitarian/anti-totalitarian justification, as laid out by Johann Hari, André Glucksmann, David Aaronovitch, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and some others. Curiously, the voices that convinced me tended to be Europeans -- Europe was the boiling cauldron of "nothing is worse than an American war" opposition to the whole project.
Bush didn't convince me, but Tony Blair did. On March 31, 2003, that relentless anti-American, anti-Iraq War newspaper, the "Guardian," summed up Blair's vision in its leader:
Mr Blair has invaded Iraq for different reasons from Mr Rumsfeld. In Mr Blair's world, Saddam is a moral outrage, both for the way that he treats his own people and for the threat that he poses to others, especially if he were to use weapons of mass destruction or to put them into the hands of terrorists. Putting Iraq to rights, in Mr Blair's view, should be the whole world's business. The more that all the nations make common cause to do this, the better. The less this happens, the more vital it is to balance any absence of common cause with a series of equitable and humanitarian initiatives - on the Middle East and on reconstruction in particular - which can help to establish what Disraeli, seeking to justify the British invasion of Abyssinia in 1867, called "the purity of our purpose".
That was the war for me. No, we didn't quite get it, but then history doesn't work that way.
As for WMD, they were not a minor point. But they were not my single-issue selling point, either.
Yes, we were deceived. The deception was Saddam's, not Bush's. He denied he had WMD, but behaved as though he did. The question in my mind was, did the inspections and the sanctions keep massive killing devices out of his hands, or not? And the only way to know for sure was to get him out of power and open the whole country to inspection.
Barring that, it was a matter of probabilities. He clearly coveted the bomb, and certainly would have used it on America or Israel if he could get one. It also was true that Saddam would never reveal that he didn't have such power, even if he didn't. His dictatorial mojo was wrapped up in standing up to the Americans, in representing real Arab military power in the world. He was a lion to the Arab street, everywhere but in Iraq. He lied because it was his nature, and he lied because he had no other choice.
We knew all that. I remember discussing this all with the people I was interacting with online in those days, a diverse but highly thoughtful, passionate, and nonpartisan group that centered on an American Civil War discussion board.
Suppose, for a minute, that an individual decision to support the overthrow of Saddam was made in early 2003 solely on the basis of WMD. It would have been made in the fog of doubt. It would have been thought out in the gap between "what if he doesn't" and "what if he does."
If you knew, with certainty, that Saddam had nuclear bombs that could fit in suitcases and was in active negotiations with Osama bin Laden -- if you had it all on video, say -- then I think it was a 100 percent case for war. Except among my colleagues in the newsroom, perhaps. If you knew the inspections and sanctions were working and Saddam had nothing but rusting artillery shells and a Keystone Cops army, then you had a weak case for war (but the other justifications would remain).
But you didn't know. You couldn't have known. It's possible even Saddam didn't know what he had. It was a Clint Eastwood moment. So you had to consider, What were the chances he had one up his sleeve? One percent? Could you live with that after 9/11? 10 percent? 20 percent?
We kept waiting for the U.S. administration to give solid evidence to make it clear once and for all. The model we had in mind was Adlai Stevenson at the U.N. in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
[U.S. intelligence was wrong there, too: we grossly overestimated Soviet troop numbers in Cuba and completely missed the most dangerous weapons on the island, 12 Luna tactical nuclear weapons. But the Soviet dispute was not over the presence of missiles but over whether they were aggression or deterrence.]
But each "proof" the White House came up with quickly melted. Clearly the administration was trying to make a case for war. But they never did sell it, in an ironclad way. They may have opened the gap of reasonable doubt about Saddam, but they also involved themselves. In the end, the Colin Powell shows were a distraction. Each time the expectation of proof collapsed, we fell back into the vale of uncertainty between Saddam and Bush.
And now that the war's been fought, we accept the outcome. We know -- leaving aside the possibility that there was an Iraqi WMD stockpile that either is so well hidden we still haven't seen it, or that managed to make its way into Syria -- that there was no vast stockpile of WMD. And that the WMD Saddam did have were the least potent type, while the one we feared the most, the nuclear bomb, was the one he was furthest from getting.
And now there are those who cry that the people were deceived. These people remind me of a homeowner who demands the rebate of all his insurance premiums for the past 20 years, because his house didn't burn down after all. Or a blackjack player who wants to rescind his bet because now that he sees that 10 card in front of him, he knows he shouldn't have asked the dealer for a hit.
War is always a bad choice, and unless you love killing for its own sake, you only choose it when there's not a better option. It would be nice if such decisions could be made with god-like certainty. If you find such a planet, let me know; I might want to move there. But when you choose to go to war, you do it with the best-informed guess you can make, and you do it with every intention to finish it.
Maybe Bush "deceived" you. He didn't deceive me. Cry about it if that's your thing, but leave me out of it.