Kerry on Iraq: Guest Editorial by Joseph White
Professor Joseph White, Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University, has kindly agreed to share the following guest editorial here.
Iraq Then and Now
Why invading Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, but, once the U.S. is there, trying to win may be the best among bad choices.
In the current presidential campaign, Senator Kerry has been criticized for being inconsistent or flip-flopping because he supposedly supported the war and now criticizes it. This little essay is an attempt by a non-specialist, writing from very much an American perspective, to summarize the merits of the case.
Dick Cheney and George Bush say we had to invade Iraq to protect ourselves against terrorism. That shows they totally misunderstood the enemy.
The Wrong Enemy
The U.S. was attacked by Al Qaeda, not Saddam Hussein. That’s a truism, though apparently unrecognized by the Vice President. The larger context is that Al Qaeda is part of a Sunni fundamentalist movement that, for lack of an agreed term, I’ll call the jihadis. This movement believes the Arab world would be restored to greatness if it was governed by a medieval vision of Islam. It has tried to seize power in many countries across the Arab and Muslim worlds. But it had been defeated everywhere except Afghanistan – partly because of repression by regimes allied with the U.S., and partly because, though many people in those countries hate their governments, they also did not want such an extreme Islamic government.
So Osama bin Laden decided to change the subject. By attacking the U.S., he wanted to turn widespread resentment of the U.S., a feeling of humiliation by the westerners, into a reason to support the broader jihadist agenda. His message was that fundamentalists were standing up to the western infidels, so all good Muslims should support them.
Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that. Saddam Hussein is a Baathist, an Arab Nationalist. Osama bin Laden called Saddam an “infidel” and Saddam brutally repressed the Sunni fundamentalists, along with everyone else. Saddam was one of a bunch of people in the Middle East who didn’t like us but didn’t like Al Qaeda either. The Iranian Mullahs, for example, are Shiite fundamentalists. Sunni extremists like Osama view the Shia as heretics or schismatics. It’s much like how Catholics viewed Protestants during the Reformation – which led to over a century of religious wars in Europe. Even in Iraq some of the bombings have been Sunnis blowing up Shia.
So attacking Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with attacking Osama. In fact, it was exactly what Osama would want. First, it got rid of one of his enemies in the Arab world. More important, the American invasion of Iraq gave him an opportunity to get allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Before we invaded Iraq, we were fighting Sunni jihadis. Lots of other people didn’t like us, for all sorts of reasons, but were not trying to kill Americans. Now, in Iraq, the Al Qaeda types are joined by Baathist Arab nationalists; by the radical Shia led by Muqtada al-Sadr; by Iraqi nationalists who don’t like having the U.S. occupying their country; and by tribal groups that just don’t like having any foreigners around, and who feel they have to take revenge if any of their members are killed. The rest of the Arab world sees the conflict on Al-Jazeera, where brutality based on a medieval distortion of Islam is presented as the way to overcome humiliation, be strong, and drive out the infidels. So by invading Iraq, Bush and Cheney took our conflict with jihadis into the worst possible conditions. Definitely the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. It would have been much better, for example, to put more effort into catching Bin Laden and turning Afghanistan into a decent place to live.
How Could They Get It So Wrong?
There’s a lot of theories, but one thing is clear: Bush and Cheney were not focused on Al Qaeda and the larger jihadist movement at all.
Look at what Cheney said on August 26, 2002, when he made the case for invading Iraq to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville:
“We now know Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons… Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.”
(New York Times October 3, 2004, p17)
Ignore the fact that Cheney and the rest of the administration vastly exaggerated Saddam’s nuclear threat, badly distorting the facts. Cheney’s rationale has nothing to do with Al Qaeda. As Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, makes clear, Cheney and others in the administration wanted to eliminate Saddam Hussein before 9-11 happened. The very first National Security Council meeting of Bush’s Presidency, on January 30, focused on Iraq. As Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill recalled, Condi Rice said the main agenda item was “How Iraq is destabilizing” (her words) the Middle East, and argued that, in O’Neill’s summary, “Iraq might be the key to reshaping the entire region.” (Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, 72). As many other sources, such as Richard Clarke’s book and reporting in The New Yorker show, this administration paid little attention to Al Qaeda before 9-11, and President Bush immediately focused on Iraq after 9-11.
If you were worried about Muslim radicals getting The Bomb, you would worry more about the prospect of radicals taking over Pakistan. After all, those radicals are a lot stronger in Pakistan than they were in Iraq, and Pakistan already has The Bomb. So people who seriously worried about Osama’s brand of radical Islam would at least ask whether invading Iraq might destabilize Pakistan. But there is no evidence in Plan of Attack that Bush and Cheney considered those kinds of issues at all.
Some people in the administration, known as the “neocons” (neoconservatives), believed that we could create a democracy in Iraq, and that the example of that democracy would transform the Muslim (especially Arab) world, and so defuse the threat from Muslim fundamentalist movements. President Bush makes that his main argument now. Even George F. Will calls the idea that we can build democracy in other countries a “lethal idea” (Newsweek, Sept 27 2004) based on fantasy. At a minimum, we should expect our leaders to think about what could go wrong if we tried. But Bush and Cheney appear to have paid no attention at all to the risks. Instead, they sold the idea of the war on false data about “weapons of mass destruction,” especially nuclear weapons. In Thursday’s debate President Bush said:
“My opponent says we didn’t have any allies in this war. What’s he say to Tony Blair? What’s he say to Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland?”
But even Kwasniewski, asked about weapons of mass destruction in March, said:
“They deceived us about the weapons of mass destruction, that’s true. We were taken for a ride.” (taken from the Newsweek website Sunday, October 03, 2004)
The facts are obvious. This administration came into office determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That was a goal long before 9/11. Attacking Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda and nothing to do with radical Sunni fundamentalism. Cheney wanted to attack Iraq because he thought Saddam would dominate the Middle East with nuclear weapons that Saddam did not have. The administration grossly distorted intelligence to make that case. What attacking Iraq did do was play directly into Osama bin Laden’s hands. Bush and Cheney show no signs of even understanding the issue.
But now the U.S. is occupying Iraq. Actually, “occupying Iraq” may be a bit too positive a term; part of the problem in terms of security is that the U.S. is not doing much of a job of occupying significant portions of the country. What should be done now?
Senator Kerry’s position is that, once there, the U.S. can’t afford to lose. Ignore for the moment what “lose” and “win” might mean. An outcome that would be viewed as defeat for the U.S. would be seen by the Arab world and much of the Muslim world as a victory for jihadi’sts. Bush and Cheney turned Iraq into a giant recruiting poster for Al Qaeda. But it will be much worse if the fundamentalists can say they won, so that Iraq is proof that their approach can restore the pride and power of Arab and Muslim peoples.
The question then is whether Senator Kerry has a better chance of avoiding such a loss than President Bush does. That gets translated politically into whether Kerry has a better “plan” than Bush, but demanding a “plan” is plain dumb. Iraq is past the opportunity for planning. Kerry can’t possibly know what the situation on the ground will be on January 20, so what he will do then, should he be elected. Instead, Kerry can legitimately argue that he offers a more promising approach.
His first argument would be that Bush has already shown that he doesn’t deserve trust on the issue. Bush has had lots of “plans” for Iraq, all of which have failed. At a minimum, Kerry can and has said that you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t willing to figure out what it is, or even to acknowledge it. So one advantage of Kerry’s approach would be realism.
But what then? Kerry can’t legitimately promise that he will get a lot of help from allies and international organizations. They must calculate their own national interests and domestic politics (or, for international organizations, where they’ll get staff willing to risk going to Iraq), and the costs may exceed the benefits. What Kerry can argue is that he has a better chance of getting help from allies and international organizations than Bush does. Consider the situation of the French:
The French government opposed invading Iraq for very good reasons: that invading Iraq was a diversion from the real task, fighting jihadis, and that Saddam could be kept in a box by inspections. They were right. But, as noted above, now Iraq IS a front in a conflict with jihadis. There is a French interest in avoiding jihadist victory in Iraq, because, expanded beyond Iraq, the movement is highly likely to have nasty effects on French interests. But it has to be very hard for the French to turn around and support the U.S. with Bush as president: partly because of personal feelings among leaders and partly because Bush has proven that his judgment in operational decisions cannot be trusted. There is a further problem, to which Kerry had referred. The Bush administration has been so focused on keeping contracts for American corporations, using contract decisions to punish the French and others, that it would be very hard for any French government to cooperate unless it could show that the French were no longer being discriminated against in economic terms. I suspect that the material value of contracts in the short run is not the major issue. After all, the average French contractor, like all others, must have serious doubts about sending their staff to Iraq at the moment. But the French must care about both the principle and the long run, whether there would be any business prospects if Iraq is ever stabilized. So Kerry makes a good substantive point when he talks about contracts.
Hence Kerry can offer realism, some practical measures to enlist others, and simply the advantage of not being Bush, so making a fresh start. Beyond that, however, he and Bush would face much the same constraints. Everybody is for training more Iraqi soldiers and policemen; the challenge is to ensure they’re competent and don’t go over to the other side(s). Kerry is more likely than Bush to admit a need for more force, and has called for a larger Army. But it’s not clear where the extra volunteers could be found under current conditions, and the political constraints against deploying more troops in Iraq are strong. Neither Kerry nor Bush has evident ways to make the Shia trust the Sunnis, or the Turks accept Kurdish autonomy. Kerry may be seen in most of the world as very different from Bush, so have a better chance of winning cooperation from forces outside Iraq. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the contending forces inside Iraq will make the distinction between Kerry and Bush. If Kerry wins he has a better chance of some sort of “success” than Bush does, but it’s still going to be very difficult.
A Note on the Politics
Readers will note that everything I’ve said here is compatible with the substance of Senator Kerry’s campaign positions, but somewhat different from what he has said.
The Bush campaign charges it is inconsistent to say Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet still say we need to win. Their position ignores the fact that the conflict in Iraq is now far wider than a conflict with Saddam Hussein.
The Bush campaign also says Kerry “backed” the war when he voted for the resolution giving Bush authority. As an observer, I find it fair to say that many Democrats made a political calculation to back that resolution. They knew they could be blamed for opposing it, and surely assumed that, if there were a war, and it turned out badly, Bush would get more of the blame than they would. But Kerry does have a substantive point. Bush and Cheney and their advisers greatly exaggerated the evidence about the potential threat from Saddam. Yet most outsiders thought Saddam had some sort of WMD, and thought he harbored aggressive intent. Under these conditions it made sense to resume inspections, and it is highly unlikely that Saddam would have allowed the inspections without the threat of an invasion. It is reasonable for a Senator to expect a normal President to threaten force, when that is useful, yet use force only when necessary. We now know better – that Bush meant to invade Iraq all along. But Kerry could not, and even if he did, he could not have proved it at the time.
Bush also says Kerry does not “support our troops.” That charge has two components. One is Kerry’s series of votes on the famed $87 billion supplemental appropriation. Anyone who knows Congress knows that votes are framed as packages, amendments are offered, and sometimes a legislator wants one version but not another, so votes against the final version of legislation. Kerry may have made a mistaken political calculation (in this case, to object to how the reconstruction of Iraq would be financed), but to say he did not “support our troops” is a distortion (though one Kerry made possible). A more fundamental part is Bush’s argument that, in order to support the troops, you have to support the war.
Many liberals or peace advocates find Bush’s position incomprehensible. The best thing that could happen to the troops would be to come home, unharmed. If opposing the war means ending the war, then it would get the troops out of Iraq, giving them the help they need most. Bush’s argument has a lot of political resonance because “support” in this case means emotional support. If you were stuck in Iraq, you would want to believe you were there for a good reason. It’s hard enough to be in a hellhole, having to kill or be killed, continually wondering who just wants to be your friend and who wants to blow you up, without suspecting that you shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Kerry can give three answers to this criticism. One would be that at least some of who the troops are fighting are the right enemy, even if they should not have been fighting on this ground. A second would be that having a leader who recognizes reality makes it more likely that their efforts will make us more secure. Finally, he can argue that we just should not lie to soldiers; that they can recognize the truth for themselves, and being lied to just makes them feel their government is selling them out.
Kerry can make the final argument from experience. That is how he felt in Vietnam. Yet a whole lot of other soldiers – the kind whose views are represented in the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” – felt very differently. Their need to feel their sacrifices were justified is so great that even 30 years later they can’t let go.
The average voter understands the feelings of soldiers who need to believe what they’re doing is worthwhile. Perhaps that explains why Kerry can’t make some other points as strongly as an analyst would wish.
Joseph White, Ph.D.
Luxenberg Family Professor and Chair
Department of Political Science
Director, Center for Policy Studies
Case Western Reserve University
Mather House 111
11201 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland OH 44106-7109
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