Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Underrated Villains of Iraq

Okay, let's talk blame for the Iraq War.

Matt Yglasias, in a smart post, says:
The main not-totally-obvious thing I have to say about this is that the underrated villains in this drama are the leading Democratic Party politicians of the 2002-2003 era. “Because trusted leaders of my political party say so” is of course not a good reason to back any political position. But the evidence is overwhelming that elite signaling and top-down leadership matter for public opinion formation. I remember quite clearly that in arguments around the dining hall people who were (rightly) opposing the invasion would (wrongly) emphasize the Bush Bush Bush factor in their arguments and I would rebut by pointing to Hillary and Bill Clinton, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, John Kerry and John Edwards. Madeleine Albright. The whole crew
I think that's correct if "this drama" refers to mistaken policy preferences of college-student Yglesias and others who basically mistakenly lined up on the "wrong" side - wrong not in that it was poor public policy (although I certainly agree that was the case) but wrong in the sense that they were following sensible cues which nonetheless betrayed them.

But I don't think it's correct in the sense that the liberals who wound up voting for the war (many with some sort of reservations, but even putting that aside) really weren't in a position to have very much influence over whether the war would happen or not. Had mainstream liberal Democrats been solidly opposed, the resolution still passes the Senate, for example. It would have been less popular, yes, but I don't think there's much that Democrats, or at least mainstream liberal Democrats could have done in 2002-2003 to stop it. So, sure, those who voted for it should be held responsible, but I don't think they're the underrated villains.

No, to find those, I suspect we need to turn to what Yglesias says later:
On the actual policy, what holds up reasonably well from the old pre-war case is that the Clinton era “containment” policy on Iraq was crumbling. The endless sanctioning of Iraq was not a viable long-term strategy for the region. That left you with two kinds of options. One—the wrong option—was to get more aggressive. The other—the correct option—was to realize that the goal of military domination of the Persian Gulf is just fundamentally misguided. The project is motivated by fuzzy thinking about oil, and it’s been extremely costly over the decades. Protecting Kuwait from a direct and flagrantly illegal cross-border military attack is a defensible (though arguably not necessary) use of military force, but the whole rest of the undertaking dating back to long before Bush was a mistake.
I'm not sure about "crumbling", but I would definitely agree that the GHWB-Clinton policy after the first Gulf War was extremely costly and long-run unstable.

What that points to is that the first Gulf War was a mistake -- a mistake that wasn't recognized, and still isn't recognized, because of the almost picture-perfect execution of the policy.

George H.W. Bush and his national security/foreign policy team deserve tons of credit for managing the end of the Cold War; I think their handling of that is severely underappreciated (thanks to Democratic reluctance to praise Republicans and Republican insistence on glorifying Ronald Reagan). Given the decision to use force to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, they handled it about as well as possible. But for all that, the US wound up with a situation considerably worse than another Korea and in a worse part of the world in which to have that situation.

It wasn't a good enough reason to go to war in 2003, but that only goes to show that when there are no good decisions one can still make a relatively worse decision.

Which means that long-term US policy in general, and the George H.W. Bush Gulf War, are really the underrated villains of the Iraq War.

At least that's one theory. The other theory is just that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld etc. are underrated as villains because there's a tendency to look for more complicated explanations.


  1. Why is a 12 year long policy of sanctions an inevitable consequence of a swiftly victorious war to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait?

  2. Had mainstream liberal Democrats been solidly opposed, the resolution still passes the Senate, for example

    You're just subtracting the number of pro-war Dems from the total number of votes for the AUMF? That assumes, wrongly, that everything else would remain the same, when in fact there were a bunch of (potentially) moving parts.

    It's possible that, if "mainstream liberal Democrats" were united against the war, that would have emboldened overall opposition and made the media more skeptical. It might have even swayed some latent-realists on the GOP side such as Hagel and Lugar.

    The whole point of Yglesias's post is that anti-war people were ostracized and pigeonholed as liberal peaceniks, which in turn suppressed other dissenters. It's not out of the realm of possibility that, had mainstream Dems and realist GOPers come out vocally against the war, we could have seen a snowball effect in the opposite direction.

    1. Yeah, I think the odds were very, very slim of Republican Senators (or Members of the House) undermining a Republican president who was set on war. And I don't think that the Hagels and Lugars of the world were going to be affected *at all* by what Kerry, H. Clinton, and Biden thought.

      Is there any evidence at all that Lugar and others actively tried to form an anti-war coalition and were rebuffed? Or even that they were open to it? I don't think so.

    2. I'd also add that if the resolution failed somehow, basically the whole sanctions regime would have collapsed. After all if we aren't willing to threaten invasion why should it continue, so GOP senators (and some Dems I suppose) were obsessed with not making America look "weak." But don't forget how strong partisan bonds can be even in foreign policy, Lugar was a huge critic of the late 90's NATO bombing campaign against Serbia which was nickle and dime AND massively successful compared to the invasion of Iraq.

    3. Don't forget Paul Wellstone, who was starting to lead the Democrats in opposition when he had a fatal plane crash.

      The whole "my leader just died in a fire" thing.

  3. I imagine that some Democrats remembered those who had opposed the first Gulf War as easy political targets after that war went so smoothly and became so popular after the fact.

  4. We'd gone through a period (the 90's) when the pull and tug of intervention/nonintervention had some successes and failures on both sides (Somalia versus Rwanda, Sarajevo versus Kosovo) with the most recent example being what seemed to be success in Afghanistan and the "light footprint" seemed to work--we could hand off nation-building to NATO and the EU.

    Maybe the problem was there was no third alternative and there still isn't. How do you intervene against a regime like Iraq/N Korea without troops on the ground? Had there been a third alternative the MSM could have used that to question the Bush policy under their usual "on the one hand/on the other". But without an alternative better than Powell's "smart sanctions", those dubious of Bush's intervention were at a disadvantage.

  5. Did all those Democrats support the war because it was popular, or was the war popular because all those Democrats supported it? I suspect it's more the former than the latter.

    One thing that really bothers me about some of these ten-year reminiscences is that so many of them say, "You didn't really hate the war - you just hated Bush." Well, a lot of us really didn't start hating Bush until he got his stupid war.

    1. The war was not particularly popular before it started.

  6. Jonathan, it's not just about the vote -- it's about the entire Democratic party standing down. When Democratic opposition failed to emerge, the press (which is driven by coverage of partisan clashes, if not partisan cues themselves) wasn't encouraged to do its job either. Had Democrats mobilized against the war, there was a chance (even if a small one) that the power of public opinion could have stopped it (ie, the President's effort to "create reality" might have failed).

    But Democratic party leaders were more interested in power than in doing the right thing. If that's not the definition of a villainy, I don't know what is. The failure to even challenge such an obviously misguided war represents a massive failure by our party system.

    1. I think cowardly is more apt than villainous in this case. The period from September 12, 2011 to the toppling of the Saddam statue is the most jingoist of my lifetime. Democrats thought they'd be crushed politically if they opposed the war. When parties think a policy choice will consign them to massive defeat, they avoid making that choice. I don't think that's a failure of the party system - it's actually closer to being an indication of a highly functional party system that resulted in a poor policy outcome.

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    3. Fair enough, cowardly is probably more apt than villainous. But I'm not sure why you think it's a sign of "a highly functional party system" when jingoism and cowardice prevent rational policy outcomes. One of the most important functions of a democracy is to provide a voice for internal opposition to ruinous policies. In this case, that failed. Democrats lost politically because they were afraid of losing power personally. That's a total perversion of the leadership principles our country's founders had in mind.

    4. Yup -- cowardly. And I agree; that's not the worst thing for a political party, especially one (mostly) out of power.

      Still -- Democrats certainly did oppose the war. It's just that about half of them (in the Senate, e.g.) didn't. I mean, we're not talking about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. I'm actually not all that big on the "voicing other views" part of democracy (not against it, just value it less than some others do), but it was safely taken care of in 2002-2003.

  7. I'm unclear about your position on Gulf I; it sounds as if your preferred policy (now? and then?) would have been not to use military force to evict Iraq from kuwait. (Am I missing something?) What's not clear to me is *why* you think that would have been a preferable policy, either at the time or in retrospect...And it's not clear how you think we (and other nations) might better have responded to an invasion like that, especially when the leadership (as undemocratic, and repressive, as it was and is) asked for help...

  8. I think the maintenance of the international norm of not acquiring territory by force (unless you're Israel) has to be taken into account when considering Gulf War I.

  9. In September of 1990, President Bush addressed Congress and laid out the rationale for GW I. Contrary to popular belief, the reason was not oil or imperialism or Republican aggression; the reason can be found right there at the end of the first paragraph: because Saudi Arabia was going to be next.

    Then, as now, skepticism reigned, though many of the Congressional skeptics had never heard of Saddam Hussein 2 months prior, while Bush had known Hussein for a very long time, having a front row seat as Director of the CIA to the organizing of OPEC that was a young Hussein's rise to fame.

    Suppose, because GHWB was far more informed about Hussein and his motives than say, Joe Peanut Gallery, that indeed Saudi Arabia was going to be next. Throw in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon - heck, let Saddam take over the entire non-Persian Arab world in creating a new Ottoman empire.

    The OPEC-on-steroids implications of that would have been bad enough. But whither Israel under such a circumstance?

    And even if we didn't particularly care about Israel's fate...whither Israel's nukes if that country were transformed into a tiny island surrounded by a menacing, powerful enemy?

    GW I actually makes a ton of sense if you don't let yourself get distracted by seductive memes.

    1. I think the vicinity of Saudi Arabia did play a role. (Iraqi tanks briefly rode across the border into Saudi Arabia in the process of occupying Kuwait, perhaps by accident, perhaps to make a point). Bush needn't have had any inside information on Hussein's intentions, the uncertainty regarding Iraqi intentions may have been enough, or even the possibility that Iraq might have intimidated Saudi Arabia without occupying it. But it's hard to separate concern with the fate of Saudi Arabia from concern for oil, and you don't have to bother with Jordan, Syria, and the rest. In 1990 Iraq accounted for 11% of the world's total known oil reserves. Kuwait accounted for another 11%. Saudi Arabia, 28%. Right there you had half of the world's oil supply potentially under the control or influence of Saddam Hussein. That was surely enough to raise eyebrows in Washington.

    2. Of course the first Gulf War is what provoked Bin Laden. So instead of your one hypothetical war (that wouldn't have involved the US), our country has so far been involved in three ground wars and has seen massive death and destruction visited upon the heart of our largest city. That’s not to mention the huge economic cost and loss of civil liberties. Do you really think it would have gone worse than all that?

    3. It seems likely to me that Iraq could have been deterred from this hypothetical conquest of Saudi Arabia without the Gulf War. Less certain, I suppose, is whether he could have been deterred without what the US wound up doing after the Gulf War, which is what (supposedly, you never know) provoked bin Laden -- that is, he objected to US troops semi-permanently in the neighborhood, not so much the invasion of Iraq.

      Yes, sovereignty is worth protecting. Not clear to me that it was worth fighting the Gulf War over, given the likely short and long-term costs.

    4. Thanks for the comments guys, to Scott's comments about the inside info - true GHWB needn't have had inside info, though considering his career arc that's the type of info he was likely to have (vs. a less experienced POTUS - e.g. his son - who would get such info highly spun).

      50% of the world's oil does make the cartel a lot easier, you don't have to coddle the pesky Venezuelans as much. Obviously, it confers power. Lots and lots of power. Power not at all friendly to the US, the West, Israel.

      Brings me to Couves point: so what? If Saddam had gone into Saudi Arabia, that would have been a fairly easy invasion. Suppose the modern Ottoman empire had indeed been born, with Saddam its Saladin (this idea is, per Scott's point, at least debatable).

      Now you've got this budding superpower, with lots and lots of natural resources, and lots and lots of money, but fairly limited technology, virtually surrounding a tiny, bitter enemy (Israel) which would be overwhelmed in every dimension except the military one, for which their advantage would run to multiple nuclear warheads.

      I can't imagine how that would end well.

    5. "So what?" My point is, your worse case scenario is better than what actually happened. Although our disagreement here will probably be on the basis of what constitutes our national interest.

      Even so, you paint a highly implausible picture. A new Ottoman Empire? I think the Turks might have something to say about that. And who were the Turks allies with at the time? Israel. I also can't think of a better scenario for actually uniting Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Syria than the common threat of an Iraqi superstate. Who knows, maybe even Iran would jump into the action.

      And if all else fails, I'm sure Israel would defeat the full force of Saddam's Iraq. Remember, Israel reservists have already proven their ability to defeat enemies with superior numbers, superior technology and the martial discipline to fight to the last man.

    6. Couves, its absolutely certain that at the birth of a hypothetical Iraqi superstate, the IDF would be the vastly superior military force. As you pointed out, the IDF had already proven that. However, superstates tend to become more powerful over time, especially militarily, and its hard to believe the Iraqi Empire would have been any different.

      Indeed, even before the Iraqi Empire caught the Israelis from a technological standpoint (which may actually never have happened), there would always be a risk similar to what happened in Korea: the US/UN was not driven to the South China Sea by a militarily superior opponent; its just that Mao sent so many regulars pouring over Manchuria we couldn't effectively match their numbers. The same problem would eventually arise for Israel sharing a neighborhood with a hostile superstate.

      This is a good discussion, imo its the one we should have about the US' whole messy last 40 years in the Middle East. Its also entirely debatable; we don't know what would have happened given the coalition forestalling any such outcome. Like statisticians, all we can really do is assess which error is more important to avoid:

      Is it better to err on the side of Neville Chamberlain, and let the Iraqi superstate rise up, or err on the side of Bin Laden, and kill the disease before it metastasizes?

      For me, especially if you allow the assumption that we handle the Bin Laden part of that era much more effectively than we did, I'd say that Israel's nuclear arsenal is the deciding factor that GW I was indeed the correct decision facing that uncertainty.

    7. This thread is fascinating, and totally ignores the heterogeneity of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East Muslims. The only reason Iraq hadn't devolved into civil war was that Hussein was more brutal than anyone else.

      I can't imagine that he could have held this hypothetical new empire more than a couple of years, even if he had managed to murder every last Saud.

      Murderous dictatorships don't scale all that well.

    8. Diversity is definitely a problem in the hypothetical Iraqi superstate...but is it a deal-breaker?

      Saddam did manage to get the (numerical) majority Shiites in Iraq to die en masse fighting their brother Iranians for a decade, and this obviously did not jeopardize his hold on power.

    9. Anon is right, an Iraqi superstate would have been very unstable, more so the larger it grew. Also, Saddam's neighbors would have begun arming themselves furiously. His only chance would be to rapidly conquer the whole middle east. I think it's reasonable to wonder whether he even had the logistical capacity to do this.

  10. The issue with the Gulf War was that there was no way to end the peace, if you will. Saddam was still in charge and was keeping control of the country through military aggression. It would have been difficult to calm the area down using diplomacy before the Gulf War. After the war, Iraq turned into paranoid siege state which would be constantly requiring the US military to be ready to intervene. Then we went to war over there, which was a more costly blunder.

    RE: the democratic lack of protest, I think the point made earlier about jingoism was important. But the political situation left you with only two arguments to make, both of which weren't very convincing for most people (though I kept making them anyway).

    1) Iraq is no threat to the US even if the WMD claim is true. We have no reason to go in there and start removing their leadership so it is wrong to invade Iraq.

    The problem with this argument is that no one believed that the war would cost as much as it did. They remembered how easy the Gulf War went, and Afghanistan didn't seem like a quagmire yet, so why not go ahead and do something moderately wrong if it would get rid of this bully who was threatening our allies there.

    2) We need to be focussing on the War on Terror, not nation building in a country with a messed up political system.

    And again, the response was mainly that it wouldn't cost very much and may even pay for itself with the oil revenues. Also, Iraq is in the middle east and hates America, so doesn't that automatically mean their teaming up with the terrorists?

    I think the bottom line is we had forgotten how much effort it takes to rebuild a former fascist country and the Gulf War made many people think it would be much easier than it was. So it was difficult to convince people that inaction is the best thing to do.

    1. Those arguments would have been much more convincing had they been repeated by more people in positions of leadership within the Democratic party. As Jonathan would say, party actors take their cues from the leadership. From there, a group mentality develops as personal principle is married with the natural impulse to defend one’s own. Only once the logic of the argument is joined by a rough parity of numbers can you have any hope of stopping a sitting President intent on war.

      We saw a similar dynamic with the Rand Paul filibuster, where the only Democrat to join him (even if only half-heartedly) was Ron Wyden. As a direct result, some otherwise liberal Democrats basically adopted the neocon position, that Rand was paranoid, grandstanding, etc. Had progressive heroes like Elizabeth Warren been right there with him, the liberal response would have been more resoundingly liberal.

      The power of partisanship is very strong -- to a large degree, party leaders hold it in their hand.

    2. They would have been more convincing to Democrats, I agree. But to what end? So the war resolution passes the Senate with 45-48 voting no, and the war starts with maybe 60% supporting it instead of ~75% IIRC.

    3. To what end? Winning the debate and stopping the war. You don't win a debate when your party's leaders defect. Yes, they would need Republican votes and that's a high bar. But it would not have been insurmountable had there been a real opposition. Public opinion is driven by party and the press, and neither displayed significant opposition to the war. Things could have turned out differently had Democratic party leaders acted differently.

      Of course there's a certain amount of political risk for the politicians involved, which apparently carries more weight than the risk to the lives of our servicemen.

    4. Couves, the guy who was making them died.

    5. Anon, what are you talking about?

  11. Unified Democratic opposition to the Iraq war would've had one shot at stopping the war in that doubts about WMDs could've delayed the invasion. Bushies really believed their own fake intelligence, so if they thought that giving UN weapons inspectors more time to turn up evidence would hurt Democratic opposition, they might have let that happen. Even under the limited time they had, the inspectors had started to come up empty. Given more time, the WMD case may have started to unravel pre-invasion, and then the war doesn't happen.

    I'm not guaranteeing this scenario, just saying it's plausible.

  12. “Because trusted leaders of my political party say so” is of course not a good reason to back any political position.

    How else would a Dem choose which short-term positions to back? Are all Dems supposed to become specialists in every field where government acts? This sounds like a lib fantasy about knowledgeable voters ... when it's clear that even paid pundits don't know what their talking about most of the time.


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