Dispelling 3 myths about the Iraq War

Jerome Delay/AP via NPR

 

Yahoo News commemorated the ten year anniversary of the Iraq War with this recent leading headline: “Iraq War Vet Pens Last Letter to Bush and Cheney.”

Per the epistle–authored by a dying vet in hospice care–Bush and Cheney are guilty of “war crimes,” “plunder,” “lies, manipulation, and thirst for wealth and power.”  In his eyes, this dynamic duo “stole the future” of veterans, sacrificing them for “little more than the greed of oil companies . . . oil sheiks . . . and insane visions of empire.”  Charming tale.  Regrettably, journalist Dylan Stableford reports these claims with virtually no comment.  That’s how they roll at the Yahoo News blogs.  Parrot liberals, ignore or spin conservatives.

This particular, gratuitous airing of invective compels a response.  So here I’ll dispel three commonly-believed fictions about the Iraq War.

“Bush lied, people died!”

With these words, you can just imagine the shrill cries of Code Pink ladies now.  The question is, which deaths were Bush’s fault?  Most Iraqi civilians died at the hands of insurgents or inter-sectarian strife, not Coalition forces.  Yes, over 4,000 American soldiers died, with many more seriously injured.  With all due respect, this should not be an unexpected outcome for those who voluntarily join the armed services.  All the more that we’re grateful for their service.  That said, it’s just not evident that President Bush did something heinous in exercising Congressionally-authorized use of military force to protect America.

Speaking of authorization, what part of the invasion rationale was a lie?  Max Boot pointed out recently that every intelligence agency worth its salt suspected Iraq of harboring weapons of mass destruction.  This is because Saddam Hussein wanted everyone to think he had them, including potential usurpers within his own regime.  This is the particular problem of one man dictatorships.  It’s only a matter of time before such an actor miscalculates, hurting his country, his neighbors, and in this case, himself.  Returning to the charge of lying, a lie requires intent of deceit.  And again, that’s not at all clear with Bush and company.

“Blood for oil”

This charge gets to the motivation for the invasion.  There are some interesting circumstances, such as the Bush family’s Saudi connections and the shortcuts taken by Cheney-affiliated reconstruction contractor Halliburton.  These could make for interesting premises, but as with most conspiracy theories, there’s nothing outside of a tinfoil hat to connect the dots.  Such speculation crumbles in light of the facts.

I’ll unfurl this with a personal detour.  I was an undergraduate studying international relations at the time the Iraq War started.  In fact, I was taking a political science course on national security.  Just prior to the invasion, we read the then-recently released hardcover The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.  The author, former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, was with the Brookings Institution.  And oddly enough, the book jacket featured advanced praise from future Newsweek and TIME editor Fareed Zakaria.

Suffice to say, I learned a thing or two about war.  When it comes to why wars start, the reason is simple.  It’s not about land, wealth, or religion.  The, greatest empirically correlated factor is that both sides think they can win.  This is where miscalculation comes into play.  Saddam was widely seen as an “irrational actor.”  Given his reckless history and total lack of cooperation, the security community consensus was that it was prudent to take him out.

This won’t allay the critic who still points to all the oil in the Persian Gulf region.  I agree, oil is a big factor!  But the motive isn’t “greed,” it’s global stability.  Europe, an indispensable contributor to global economic well-being, has the most to lose from a destabilized Middle East.  By contrast, the U.S. only gets 13% of its oil from there.  But because of Europe’s vulnerability, you would feel the hurt if things really went south in the Persian Gulf.

“The Wrong War”

Finally, there is the idea that compared to Afghanistan, Iraq was the wrong war.  This assumes that, like Afghanistan, the Iraq invasion was a response to the September 11 attacks.  But those attacks were only invoked in 5 of 23 justifications of the 2002 authorization for use of military force.  And there’s the false dichotomy that we had to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, but not both.  Certainly, I agree that both wars could have been executed much better!  But this does not inherently make Iraq “the wrong war.”

A second dichotomy critics force is that, if we hadn’t gone into Iraq, there’d have been billions of dollars freed to invest in American education and infrastructure.  If Barack Obama is The Messiah, then those who spouted this view pre-2008 were John the Baptist!  The Iraq War was budgeted as emergency spending, and the money wouldn’t have been spent otherwise.  The counterfactual of domestic spending nirvana is false.

Imagine getting mugged

I truly appreciate it when someone has good reasons to disagree with me.  But there are those who hold popular positions without really thinking through the implications.  Nothing exemplifies this more for me than John Lennon’s syrupy song Imagine.  Some think it’s nice to be a dreamer and imagine that there could be a better world.  The problem comes when they want to foist an impossible dream on others.  As long as humans inhabit the Earth, it will be a dangerous place.  In light of this, sometimes unpleasant choices have to be made.  Don’t rewrite the facts to fit your feelings.

I appreciate the grit in Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative: “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Moral equivalence, tolerance, reciprocity

When specifics are at stake, when values are weighed, and when judgments must be passed, it seems American liberals cannot help but default to moral equivalence.

Take for example the post-9/11 semantic struggle for the word “terrorism.”  In an earlier era, terrorism clearly meant something like a plane hijacking or an embassy bombing; it was bad because it forced a government into an odious moral dilemma of either sacrificing innocents or legitimating violence as a means for change.  But with the War on Terror, many opponents were either too angry or wearied by the daily use of the “T” word to maintain the important distinctions of who, how, and why that makes terrorism so bad.  In their new parlance, “terrorist” became an epithet befitting the unrealistic black-and-white view that any exercise of force or the mere holding of power was bad.  Common was the claim that Americans were terrorists because they dropped bombs from planes or their ancestors once sniped British officers from treetops.  This dumbing down of the “T” word culminated in a bumper sticker featuring a quaint photo of four Native Americans with rifles at the ready.  Its caption: “Homeland Security–fighting terrorism since 1492.”  And so in a thumbnail sketch, the whole of our glorious and equitable American civilization was dismissed as no different from a band of murderous Islamo-supremacist thugs.

Not only can moral equivalence single-handedly dismiss a civilization’s rich heritage, its also a cover for those who don’t want to think too hard in comparing religions or considering their respective relation to truth.  In the midst of August’s “Ground Zero mosque” media madness, a telling exchange between Charlie Rose and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria demonstrated a shameful intellectual weakness that pervades mainstream journalism.  To them, the shared evil between Christendom and Islam was not violence or the threat of coercive force, but the idea of proselytization itself;  that is, the desire to share, spread, or submit for discussion that one idea or belief is possibly better than another.  It is anathema to their profession, which upholds objectivity and neutrality.  But in an existential twist, their reports in turn must be colored by a tolerance that is itself intolerant of exclusive truth claims.  All this is surely an overreaction to a past age when fears of patriarchy, conformity, and stigmatization of minorities were major concerns.  But if we can’t get beyond the hang up of stigmatization and the impulse of tolerance that begets moral equivalence, then we have no hope of solving our problems.

Oddly enough, the inability of journalists to admit their true feelings or core motivations gives them something in common with orthodox Islam.  They both are deficient in reciprocity.  While the vested partisans of Christendom have demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-criticism, reflection, dialog, and reform, no one under the sun of political correctness can bear to admit that orthodox Islam today is in want of those things.  When a religion’s unmistakable prescription for apostasy is death, and when a civilization propagates its ideas but cannot reciprocate openness to allow the honest consideration of others, there is a problem.  Any institution or social phenomena, whether it be a religion, a government, or the culture of professional journalism, cannot long survive without shedding illiberal bulwarks against the unfettered exchange of ideas.  Totalitarian states make no qualms about shutting up debate, but when American liberals run up against the hard facts of life, they all too often dull distinctions by means of moral equivalence.

To be sure, all individuals must be respected and judged on their own merits, not on their cultural background.  And while religions and cultural norms should be given due diligence, it does not hold that in the end they are all the same.

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