What You Should Think About the War in Iraq

December 2, 2007

“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.”

–Persian proverb

I recall being mystified at the enormous disconnect between reality and “journalism” as I watched a little Fox News Channel almost every day from the emergence of the Clinton-Lewinsky story up through the end of the impeachment effort. Yet bemused puzzlement gave way to alarm as I also made a point of keeping tabs on that network during the rush into the Iraq war. While they spoke in sure tones of Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program, I saw qualified unfettered weapons inspectors concluding no such program existed. While they predicted a quick clean military operation that might cost $1-2 billion, I foresaw a protracted bloodbath.

More disturbing still, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all made the same sort of mistakes FNC did. The “mainstream media” may not have been quite so willing to celebrate bloodlust. Yet every network on that list gave airtime to transparent partisan shills spouting extreme misinformation. Every network on that list presented anchors giving the voice of authority to false narratives generated by White House propagandists. If ever there was a time to rigorously check the facts in a story, that was it. Be it fear of public backlash or lack of access to government officials or parent corporations losing government business, something drove each of those media organizations to take an active role in a campaign of national misdirection.

In fairness, actual public officials were not quite so brazen as political operatives working the media. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed downright circumspect by comparison when he predicted a little complexity in the operation along with a total price tag that might run as high as $50 billion. Yet he joined the chorus of deception when it came to that “the Iraqi people will greet our soldiers with flowers and candy in the street” forecast. Even with thoughtful planning and minimal collateral damage, such an expectation was naïve. Blind faith in the certainty of such an outcome may explain why planning was so thoughtless and the invasion itself generated so many civilian deaths.

Like voting for George W. Bush in 2000, using overwhelming military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq may be regarded as a well-intentioned mistake. Real geopolitical or historical savvy would be required to see the folly of a brute force approach rather than (as was actually done in Afghanistan) working with indigenous people to help them achieve liberty with dignity and autonomy. On the other hand, by 2004 it seemed that outright idiocy was required to overlook the dangers of continuity of Iraq policy as well as the Presidency defined by it.

Though I am not aware of any loyal Bushies admitting to it, perhaps the underlying thinking was that a full scale invasion was required to secure control of Iraqi oil. Yet even if the policy was shaped by thoughts of a resource grab, it was not framed or implemented competently. Forces on the ground were given orders to leave military supply depots unsecured in order to provide immediate protection for the oil fields. What sort of thinking could possibly lead planners to believe forces hostile to America could do less harm with explosives stockpiles than with oil wells?

People with genuine respect for the lives of coalition soldiers and/or the lives of Iraqi civilians would surely have surely recognized problems and pushed for new ideas, perhaps even new leadership, at this point. Rather than accept Secretary Rumsfeld’s initial offer of resignation, the sitting President prioritized saving face over saving lives. The fall of Baghdad was celebrated and already marginalized critics were “put in their place” by jubilant (though also ignorant or dishonest) public figures. Up went the Coalition Provisional Authority; out went every cop, bureaucrat, utility worker, and teacher affiliated with the Ba’th Party; and some truly idiotic thinking about the importance of limited government was put to the test.

Rather than give Iraqi people genuine freedom along with encouragement and support to forge their own institutions of popular rule, a long list of mandates was imposed. At times it seemed as if Rush Limbaugh himself was dictating the shape of things to come in Iraq. For example, American authorities insisted that the new Iraqi government should accept an absolute limit of 15% on income tax. After all, we wouldn’t want the new Iraqi government doing crazy things like providing quality health care to countless collateral casualties or rebuilding devastated infrastructure at a brisk pace.

Most problematic of all was the American insistence that Iraqi oil resources be placed under private ownership. This went far beyond anarcho-capitalist ideology and into the realm of outright kleptocracy. Exxon did not generate this natural bounty. Chevron executives have no ancestral claim to Iraqi sands. Even from an American perspective, there was no justice in taking such a valuable resource out of the hands of the Iraqi people in order to let foreign corporations gorge themselves on oil profits. Imagine how that American directive registered in the minds of the Iraqi people, not merely in desperate need of that revenue, but also entitled to it by any reasonable standard.

Still, what is the plight of an entire nation when there is a Presidential face to be saved? Even as some understanding of Iraq’s internal politics slowly penetrated the thick skulls of relevant American officials, there was no acknowledgement of any legitimate grievances the Iraqi people might feel toward an occupying power. Of course simply maintaining an occupation is itself cause for concern. What American would be comfortable living under martial law imposed by a distant military power? How many of our citizens would stop at nothing to strike back against the invaders? Is it any surprise that in 2004 the most popular video rental in Iraq was Red Dawn?

In light of all this, what else could the White House do but stay the course? Apparently, they did eventually come to consider an alternative — the troop surge. In a land where military occupation is the primary fuel for the fires of anarchy and terrorism, more intense military occupation is the way to go?!? Perhaps today’s war planners are hopeful that insurgents and Al Qaeda affiliates will eventually lose interest in the causes for which they are willing to die. All that can be ascertained clearly from this policy is that there is no amount of blood and treasure that would cause George W. Bush to acknowledge the unthinkable — he might actually have committed a major blunder that changed the course of history.

In the end this disastrous reality may be a natural outgrowth of late 20th century conservative political thought. Again and again, errors are met with denials or evasions rather than recognition and change. It seems as if some people believe that strong enough faith in that which is untrue can reshape reality to make trickle down economics work or environmental damage inconsequential or even brutal warmongering constructive. Talk alone, growing less and less reasonable even as it grows more and more vehement, is employed as an alternative to adaptation in the face of serious problems.

Even if one grants that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go, it remains the case that the hardships of Iraq today are not caused by any threat that might be overcome with superior military might. Political problems require a political solution. It is inexcusable that the day after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole was not a day in which sweeping demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy was announced.

There is much work for diplomats, and perhaps spies as well, to perform inside Iraq. Perpetuating the bloodbath over there has added enormous difficulties to the challenges already inherent in the Iraqi situation. A new approach, in which officials make a good faith effort to face facts, then a similar effort to be honest with the public in both Iraq and the United States, would be a wonderful step in the right direction. Substantial reduction in the profile as well as the scope of the occupation would also be a form of progress. Instead policy seems oriented entirely around delaying the point at which error must be conceded. To me, it seems like this is procrastination of downright murderous proportions.

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What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.