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Iraq Revisited Part I

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I have two short pieces at 1945 on the consequences of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The first concerns domestic politics, and I frame around a comparison between the long-term impact of Iraq and Vietnam on our political system. Obviously that’s only one way to frame the question, but as of late I’ve been making my way through Rick Perlstein’s tetralogy on American conservatism and so the comparison is constantly in mind:

But politically the Iraq War was central to the elections of 2004, 2008, and even 2016. In 2004 George W. Bush defeated John Kerry on a strongly pro-war platform, with Kerry arguing for a negotiated, staged withdrawal of US forces. In 2008 the Iraq War was again the centerpiece of the campaign, with Barack Obama touting anti-Iraq War credentials against a hawkish John McCain.  Iraq took a backseat in the 2012 election although it again gained salience with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

In 2016, Donald Trump used his ambiguous record on the war to defeat hawkish candidates in the GOP primary, then turned that argument against Hillary Clinton, one of the most hawkish members of the Democratic Party. Joe Biden slow-motion repudiated his support of the Iraq War between 2005 and 2020, and the issue had largely lost salience by the 2020 election.

Still, the contrast with the Vietnam War here is extraordinary; in 1980 the United States elected an extremely hawkish President who had strongly advocated participation in and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Running on a pro-Iraq War platform today would be considered suicidal in either party.

I find it puzzling that the social, political, and cultural reaction to one war built on a pile of lies should differ so significantly from that to another war built on a pile of lies. I do wonder whether the fact that the United States failed to find any chemical or biological stockpiles of any note in Iraq is part of the reason for the difference. Say what you will about North Vietnam, it was in fact full of communists.

I have long thought that the “Bush Lied, People Died” framing is mostly correct but sometime inappropriately framed. The evasions that folks most commonly use for this are a) that the administration was misled by the Intelligence Community and thus did not knowingly lie, and b) that the real issue of the war was Iraq’s inability to conclusively demonstrate that it lacked weapons of mass destruction. The first is nonsense; the administration heavily pressured the IC into issuing particular judgments about Iraqi WMDs in order to generate a casus belli, and while the IC most certainly did not cover itself with glory in the run-up to the war, its conclusions cannot be regarded as the proximate cause of the decision to invade. The second is essentially legalistic mumbo jumbo that runs counter to nearly the entire body of Bush administration advocacy for war, which involved both intimated claims about Iraq WMDs and clearly stated claims about the presence and prospective employment of such weapons.

That said, I think that the strongest version (that the administration knew that there were no WMD and lied about it) is considerably overstated. There’s every reason to believe that senior administration officials did genuinely believe that Iraq was concealing WMDs, and their beliefs were largely supported (if at variable levels of confidence) by not only the US Intelligence Community but also by international observers. Bush and the people around him were not lying in saying that they believed that Iraq was concealing WMDs, even if this represented motivated reasoning from the evidence.

The first good argument for “Bush Lied, People Died” is that senior members of the administration consistently overstated the strength of the case that Iraq was concealing stocks of usable chemical munitions. Defenders of Bush would like to describe this as a case of forgivable rhetorical exaggeration, but there are numerous points where senior administration officials clearly describe intelligence pointing to the existence of specific stockpiles. Exaggeration, in this case, simply amounts to a different word for “lying.” Moreover, I have no doubt whatsoever that the officials who made such arguments clearly understood that they were exaggerating the extent of the evidence, even when they believed that the thing that they were describing was true and that their claims would eventually be vindicated by findings on the ground in Iraq. Lying about your confidence level in something you believe to be true is still lying.

The even stronger argument for “Bush Lied, People Died” is the administration’s effort to tie Iraqi chemical weapons to Al Qaeda terrorism. This is an easy case. Rice, Powell, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the claims they were making about Iraq’s ability and willingness to support terrorist attacks using its chemical weapons arsenal were nonsense. They were intentionally misleading the public using specific claims that were obviously incorrect to someone at their levels of expertise, and they were leaning into those claims because they knew that journalists and the general public would lack the expertise to see through the arguments. This is the worst kind of lying; making untrue statements specifically generated in order to create fear and error in the audience. My own position on this has been that it never really mattered to the hollowness of the case for war that Iraq had no WMDs, as the presence of such stockpiles would have been wholly insufficient to making a coherent case for war. Rice, Powell, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld also knew this, yet decided to lie relentlessly about it in order to get the war that they wanted.

In any case, I’m curious about your thoughts on the Iraq-Vietnam comparison. In the linked piece I also talk a bit about the cultural context, where I think it’s undeniable that Vietnam has a much, much greater impact than Iraq. More tomorrow on the international fallout from the war.

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