Nothing was not an Option
For those who opposed the war all along, first 9/11/11, then 3/20/13 were causes for fresh waves of nearly onanistic condemnations and toldjasos. Even initially hawkish editorialists, chastened by a decade of bleak experience, have engaged in hand-wringing attempts to explain their misjudgment. NYT Op-Ed page writer and executive editor Bill Keller epitomizes the latter group, and ultimately encompasses the former. Here are some representative (and highly edited for length) pull quotes from his mea culpa:
The question is really two questions: Knowing what we know now, with the glorious advantage of hindsight, was it a mistake to invade and occupy Iraq? And knowing what we knew then, were we wrong to support the war?
Broadly speaking, there were three arguments for invading Iraq: … humanitarian; … [promoting] democracy …; … and [WMD/regional security/explicit and implicit support of terrorism].
For many of us, the monster argument was potent, even if it was not sufficient. … We were, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “enamored of [our] own morality.”
But there are plenty of monstrous regimes that we do not go to the trouble of overthrowing. It should perhaps have caught our attention that Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on humanitarian intervention (the Pulitzer-winning “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”) and who had endorsed armed intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda, and at an earlier time in Iraq, did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“My criterion for military intervention — with a strong preference for multilateral intervention — is an immediate threat of large-scale loss of life,” explained Power, who now advises President Obama on multilateral affairs and human rights. “That’s a standard that would have been met in Iraq in 1988 but wasn’t in 2003.”
The idea that America could install democracy in Iraq always seemed to me the most wishful of the rationales for war, although some people who knew the region far better than I made that case. … The exiled Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya — a proponent of invasion who later repented — observed that Iraq’s population was so traumatized by decades of abuse that they were unwilling to take initiative or responsibility …
The main selling point for war in Iraq, at least for the American public, was that Hussein represented a threat to American security. But what kind of threat, exactly?
The following couple paras contain, more begged questions than there are sentences.
Iraq was not, as Afghanistan had been, the host country and operational base of the new strain of Islamic fascism represented by Al Qaeda. It is true that Hussein hosted some nasty characters, but so did many other dictators hostile to America. At the time, Iraq was one of seven countries designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, and in the other six cases we settled for sanctions as recourse enough. And his conventional military — what was left of it after it was laid waste in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 — was under close supervision.
That leaves the elusive [WMD]. We forget how broad the consensus was that Hussein was hiding the kind of weapons that could rain holocaust on a neighbor or be delivered to America by proxy. He had recently possessed chemical weapons (he used them against the Kurds), and it was only a few years since we had discovered he had an active ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Inspectors who combed the country after the first gulf war discovered a nuclear program far more advanced than our intelligence agencies had believed; so it is understandable that the next time around the analysts erred on the side of believing the worst.
We now know that the consensus was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked. … A few journalists — notably Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers — emphasized conflicting intelligence that questioned Hussein’s capabilities. But assuming we couldn’t know for sure, what would have been acceptable odds? If there was only a 50-50 chance that Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear weapon, could we live with that? One in five? One in 10?
In 1992, after driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney mused on the calculus of war. Why, he asked an audience in Seattle, had the United States not pursued Hussein’s forces all the way to Baghdad and removed him from power? Because, Cheney said, that would have committed the U.S. to an unacceptable long-term occupation, and it would have meant more American casualties. “The question in my mind is, how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?” Cheney asked at the time. “And the answer is, not that damned many.”
Of course, Cheney wasn’t so cautious the second time around. Along with the arguments that he and many others made after 9/11 came some insufficiently considered assumptions: that we were competent to invade and occupy Iraq without making an awful mess of it and that we could do it at a cost — in lives and money — that we could live with. In the end, the costs were greater than anyone anticipated because of calamitous mistakes in execution.
Just consider the numbers. In the short-lived first gulf war, 148 Americans died in battle. In the current war, the toll so far is nearly 4,500 American dead and 32,000 wounded. At least 100,000 Iraqis, most of them noncombatants, have been killed. A war and occupation estimated to cost $100 billion over two years has already cost eight times that amount.
Our occupation of Iraq has also distracted us from Afghanistan, furnished a propaganda point for Al Qaeda recruiters and limited the credibility of our support for independence movements elsewhere. It is worth mentioning, too, that our moral standing as champions of civil society has been compromised by the abuses of Abu Ghraib and rendition and torture, byproducts of the war that will long remain a blot on our reputation.
Where does this leave me? The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But knowing as we now do the exaggeration of Hussein’s threat, the cost in Iraqi and American lives and the fact that none of this great splurge has bought us confidence in Iraq’s future or advanced the cause of freedom elsewhere — I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.
Clearly, then an open and shut case that Iraqi Freedom was not only a mistake in hindsight, but in foresight, as well.
Not so fast. Despite the length of this exercise in self-flagellation, Mr. Keller, who I am using as a proxy for essentially the entire anti-war left, either is incapable of comprehending, or elides, the central, inescapable problem: nothing was not an option.
It was not a matter of Operation Iraqi Freedom or [crickets]. Yet that is precisely the notion Mr. Keller portrays. Despite his seeming expertise, he scarcely spent a moment on the status quo ante, or the various actors involved in it. The decision to depose Saddam did not have a nullity as its alternative.
My goal here is to lay out briefly, yet in sufficient detail, the status quo ante in the hope of demonstrating that, like in so many aspects of international relations, there were no good options. The choice wasn't between deposing Saddam and crickets, but more like having to pick either the devil or the deep blue sea.
The Status Quo Ante
Contra Mr. Keller, there were several reasons the US didn't extend Desert Storm to a full scale invasion of Iraq. Most obvious should be that we could do only what was politically possible, and, given the nature of the coalition, continuing the march to Baghdad probably wasn't. Beyond that, Keller failed to consider the obvious influence on decision makers at the time: it is generally pointless to kill someone who is in the process of committing suicide. Between the considerable political risks and the seeming likelihood that Saddam wouldn't long survive the Kuwaiti debacle, it seemed a fair bet to be satisfied with limited, rather than absolute, objectives.
Unfortunately, Saddam's hold on power was firmer than we imagined. Which left us with:
- Southern Watch, the long term, large scale air operation based primarily in Saudi Arabia to stop Saddam's bombing attacks on Shia in Southern Iraq.
- Northern Watch, a similar operation to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq.
- Ongoing futile attempts to ensure Saddam's compliance with WMD inspections, which led to a series of UN Security Council resolutions promising severe consequences in the event of continued defiance.
- The Oil for Food program (OFF), which was established to stop Saddam from re-establishing his military, while not causing additional suffering among the Iraqis themselves.
- The French, Chinese and Russians were actively using OFF to undermine the sanctions.
- Massive UN corruption related to OFF was causing what had previously been thought unimaginable: further besmirching the UN's reputation.
- Saddam was actively funding Palestinian suicide bombers
- Saddam was also routinely shooting at coalition aircraft enforcing the southern and northern no-fly zones.
This list could go on, but it should be sufficient to support this conclusion: the sanctions regime and aerial occupation of the northern and southern thirds of Iraq, which had gone on for a decade, had reached a dead end — something was going to replace it. This is the critical issue that Keller (et al) never grasped: it wasn't a matter of invasion or nothing. Hand wringing over the human and financial costs of deposing Saddam is an empty exercise. Of course it cost more than nothing. Of course the knock-on effects were worse than nothing. But nothing was not an option. Some course of action had to replace the no-fly zones and the sanctions regime. It is against the other possible courses of action that the costs of invading Iraq need to be compared. The choice was binary: either invade, or quit the field. It is against the latter option, and its likely consequences, that we need to weigh Operation Iraqi Freedom. Obviously, there is no rewinding the tape and trying that alternative on for size. But when assessing almost any decision, whether a foreign policy decision or driving to the movies, we have to weigh the pros and cons of what we did against the foreseeable pros and cons of what we didn't. Fully caveated, here are some of the consequences of the only alternative on offer:
- Islamist Psychology.
- Shortly after 9/11, bin Laden asserted to his Muslim audience that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, had a rotten and degenerate culture that no longer had the will to fight for its own survival.
- Similarly, (I can't recall his exact words) he also proclaimed that the Muslim world would follow the strong horse.
- Therefore, we should expect that quitting the field would have had a profound effect on the entire Muslim world. Not only could the US and the West be defeated, the fact of its defeat meant it was ripe for further attack. "Angering the Arab Street" was practically a cliché a decade ago, but, thankfully, is scarcely heard anymore. That, supposedly, recruited terrorists. Possibly, but nothing like our defeat would have done. Also, a reasonable conjecture as to why we no longer hear the "Arab Street" cliche is that the predictions the term entailed never came to pass.
- Countries in the region.
- Saddam would have been free to fully reconstitute his military.
- Saudi Arabia would have been further radicalized, and we might very well have had to abandon our bases there.
- All the countries in the region would have had to make some accommodation to the new "correlation of forces" (a term not much heard since the 1970s with respect to communism, but appropriate here). None of those accommodations would have been in our interest, because they would have meant allying themselves with either Iran or Iraq.
- Saddam's Iraq was Iran's mortal enemy. A resurgent Iraq would have guaranteed Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program as energetically as it possibly could, because Iraq would have been doing so itself.
The parade of horribles gets worse. The inevitable military competition between Iran and Iraq, which must be expected to include nuclear weapons, must also have been expected to lead to yet another war. Why do I say inevitable? Because, with the inescapable shift in the correlation of forces, the US's ability to step in would have been severely eroded, if not destroyed altogether. The consequence should be obvious to anyone with the temerity to look: a Hobbesian security dilemma.
It is here where the downside risks really start mounting. Imagine a conflict that closes the Straits of Hormuz for, say, three months. The economic and human costs are almost incalculable. It is that possibility against which Keller et al need to judge whether Operation Iraqi Freedom was worth all its consequences.
Now, it is entirely possible to disagree with elements of the preceding précis, or specifics of the results, or weigh the possible outcomes differently. However, it is an illuminating exercise in journalistic incompetence and analytical malfeasance to engage in post-hoc hand wringing without once taking on board the strategic situation and the limited options it presented. Moreover, Keller et al never seem to discuss several (albeit almost certainly unintended) positive outcomes of invading Iraq, beyond Saddam's elimination:
- Until the surge, Islamists had their run of post-invasion Iraq. Their fundamentalist certainty led them to an orgy of murder that has gone some way to weakening Islamism everywhere.
- The internecine warfare between Sunni and Shia (which Saddam's rule had baked in, and would have happened eventually, regardless of our invasion) has had the consequence of reducing the extent of Muslim religious certainty. Considering what the aftermath of 9/11 was supposed to look like, it should be amazing how few, and small, attacks against the West have been. It is too early to declare victory, but there can be no doubting that violent Islamism is on the wane.
- The Islamist notion that the US is too decadent to fight is dead, and its passing must have had an impact on Islamist decisions to conduct further attacks against the West.
- Gaddafi's ceding Libya's nuclear weapons program
You would think they might explain in some depth why that is.