Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The WMD Betrayal

The rest of America has blame enough to bear for what those endured who went to Iraq on our mission -- military and civilian -- and for what the Iraqis suffer. We could have done better. We let them down. We let them all down.

But we -- and they -- were let down in turn by this administration. I think the critics have it right who say that Bush and his inner circle were trapped in a permanent campaign mentality. They seemed unwilling or unable to lead, rule, or govern. But they were relentless at sapping domestic opponents and building majorities that would hold together just long enough.

As in all things, the Bush Administration was not the first to employ a bad executive policy; it merely took the bad policy to excess. Karl Rove was the manifestation; no purely political adviser should have a permanent home in the White House, and no war decisions ought to be made for political reasons (as they were, say, in Fallujah in 2004).

When it came to Iraq, I think, they couldn't help themselves. They did the one thing they knew how to do. They put together a platform with mass appeal. They lured in independents and pried key constituencies away from their opponents. They played on doubts and fears -- everything the Bush campaign squad did to beat McCain in 2000.

When you're running for office, you don't take the same message into every church, campus, or union hall. You tailor and weight the words to suit the audience. That's why the White House's run-up-to-war rhetoric seems so disjointed and scattered. Saddam's alleged ties to 9/11; the humanitarian justification; draining the swamp and spreading freedom. And, most potent of all, the WMD What-If.

The truth of that guessing game was somewhere on a scale between "Saddam has no WMD and no chance to get them" and "Saddam has stockpiles of the most lethal weapons, including nukes." How much risk are you willing to take? That was how the administration pitched it to the center, to the mass of Americans unmoved by emotional or visionary or utopian or conspiratorial arguments. The pitchers were Powell and Rice, the cabinet voices with the most appeal to the moderates. The sober, calculating set of people who think of themselves as guided by common sense, not partisan propaganda. Including a great many in the media.

Which is why the failure to find significant stockpiles or an active program hurt so much. The Saddam-did-9/11 zealots weren't going to be dissuaded by evidence of any sort. To the drain-the-swamp/humanitarian justification people, the WMD argument was secondary, if still important. Its unravelling did not seem at first to derail their hopes. Their justification for war lay elsewhere.

But I think the media had gone along, and most of the pundit class, and a great many voting people, on the basis of the WMD What-If. To discover the Administration had gambled on that and lost so badly -- gambled our trust and international credibility -- turned a great deal of opinion sour. It became "Bush's War" to a new set of people who felt betrayed. Some joined the anti-war protesters. Many just sat it out.

No doubt it had an impact on a great many people who went to fight the war at our bidding, and their families who endured their absences and feared for them. But they still managed to do what we asked, even when we asked impossible and contradictory things. No matter what you might glean from watching TV news, the better part of us has been in Iraq these past five years.

That none of this was historically unusual in wars ("Mr. Madison's War," "Mr. Polk's War," "Mr. Lincoln's War") hardly mattered. That some chemical weapons actually turned up in Iraq hardly mattered. That most other credible voices, including anti-war ones, also presumed until May 2003 that Saddam had some level of WMD (Ralph Nader and Scott Ritter, I think, were notable exceptions who came out and predicted he didn't -- but that was a guess, too), didn't matter, either.

In America, you can win elections by bluff. Then you've got four years to govern while the people discover the bluff, and when it's time to run again, you can start over with a new bluff. It doesn't work that way in war. You have to get it right every day.

Like this post itself, the Iraq War became, to the 99 percent of Americans who weren't over there, a political matter. It was about the domestic relationships, the hostilities and betrayals and lies and slanders. About who was going to be forever excluded from the national debates hereafter.

[I was not a WMD What-If backer of the invasion, though I admit the argument had an influence on me. I came around on the humanitarian/draining the swamp side. If anything, what I learned in reading the oil-for-food revelations made me more fearful of Saddam's potential for destructiveness, measured in terms of the near future, than I was before the war.]

[I should add that this is a post about one aspect of the war and the history of it; it is not a complete statement of my views about it. It is about what I think happened in our country, in part, not about what ought to have happened or what ought to happen next.]

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