A reader writes:
I just finished all 266 pages of the Deep Dish e-book on your blogging of the Iraq War. Phew! It was exhausting at times but always engaging. It was also a smart idea format-wise, and a commendable exercise overall. As other readers have pointed out, the Andrew Sullivan of the early pages is jarring. But a fair reading of the whole book shows you admirably struggling, thinking and re-assessing far, far more than most political writers on this subject.
If I could request a relevant follow-up, I would like to hear you turn outward and now explain what the hell you think was really going on behind this war. Not why you did or did not support the Iraq War, but what you think was the true impetus of the Bush administration behind this long confusing war. The earlier parts of your book focus on the Bush administration’s incompetence (which was undeniable), but later you refer somewhat to unstated motives: “It wasn’t about WMDs or Saddam’s threat that motivated this war, we now understand, so much as the capacity to forward station U.S. troops in an oil-rich region and help contain Iran.” (6/11/2008, 12.28 pm)
At the end, I was left unsure whether your support for the war was “wrong” because you ultimately disagreed with the policy, or the execution, or because you felt that real policy objectives were hidden from all of us … and/or that any such unstated policy goals were themselves ultimately wrong. For example, being overconfident as to imposing democracy onto the complexities of Shia-Sunni history is a very valid point but a bit of a distraction if our real goal was to set up military bases in an oil-rich region. Being wrong about Saddam’s threat or the existence of WMD’s is crucial, but not as much if this was more about containing Iran. I understood your evolving personal reaction to unfolding events driven by others (the Bush administration), but I wonder what you now think, with hindsight, really happened.
After so much effort revisiting this, I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought you have answered these questions. But I’ll give you an example. I thought you had an excellent post on June 1, 2006 that rightly puzzled how the obvious incompetence could be ordinarily explained:
The great paradox of Iraq has been there from the start and it still, frankly, confounds me. We were told by the president that the Iraq war was the critical battle in the war on terror, an effort of enormous stakes that we couldn’t possibly lose. And then he went to war with half the troops necessary to win, with no plan for the aftermath, and refused to budge even when this became obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain.
He says there is no greater friend or supporter of the troops, yet he sent them to do an impossible task, with insufficient numbers or support or even armor to accomplish the job. He said we face the equivalent of the Third World War and yet he has done nothing to increase the size of the military to meet the task. He said the invasion was to advance the principles of freedom and democracy, and yet he immediately abandoned those principles in our detention policy and has done more damage to the moral standing of the United States than anyone since the Vietnam war. He says he wants to build democracy, and yet he has gutted reconstruction funds, and withdrawn support for building democratic institutions. He said he will keep troops there until the job is done, and yet sustains a policy to draw down the troops as soon as possible.
These contradictions are still unexplained. The two best books I have read to try to understand the Iraq War are Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. As you know, Chandrasekaran’s book is an excellent reporting of the jaw-dropping brew of ideology, nepotism, war profiteering, ignorance and capitalist-religious evangelical fervor that suffused the planning and execution of the occupation. While I doubt you are a fan of Klein, her theory of “disaster capitalism” remains the most coherent possible explanation I have read for the paradox you identify above and the inexplicable incompetence described in Imperial Life and your own writings.
But that is my take, after-the-fact, of what was actually happening (not a reassessment of my real-time opinions). What is your after-the-fact take of the reality of the Iraq War?
I have written an answer to that in various forms, but not lately and not as a whole. I’m knee-deep in an essay on Pope Francis right now, but am grateful for your suggestion and will follow up. Another also shares his impressions of the book:
Reading your posts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 really brought me back to the chaos and profound emotional devastation of that event. I think your words really spoke to what a lot of people were feeling at the time, both the good and bad – the hurt of the attack, but also the “rage” and desire for a revenge. Even though I disagreed with the policy of pre-emptive war, I understood where you and the neocons were coming from. 9/11 wasn’t just an attack that killed 3,000 people – it was symbolic.
With that said, two other things stood out, and forgive me for not remembering which pages of the e-book they were on. At one point you referenced an Osama bin Laden videotape in which he questioned the resolve of the American people and American troops in particular. You wrote something to the effect of “Tommy Franks should have that quote posted on every military base”. In retrospect, I think bin Laden was playing a masterful game of goading Americans into an unwise intervention that would not only burden the country in the cost of lives/treasure, but would also stir more anger in the Muslim world against the West, which would only enhance his position. In a strange twist, bin Laden NEEDED the Americans to play the part of the bogeyman for his own benefit. I think his pre-election video that seemed to support Bush enhances this view of bin Laden, the manipulator.
The other thing that also stood out to me was a discussion of where people stood on how to handle the problem of terrorism. You laid out the choice fairly and clearly: is it best fought more as a police-matter and a nuisance, or do we go on offense with pre-emptive war and regime change? To me this was basically the essential question of the 2004 election, even though I knew you based your support for Kerry on a different reason. While your view on the Iraq war has changed over time, have you abandoned the theory of pre-emptive war completely?
Yes, I have. Completely. Another reader:
Unlike some of your readers, I don’t fault you for most of the things you wrote way back then, even though I too disagreed with the tone of some of your statements. It’s easy nowadays, with hindsight, for people to say Iraq was wrong, and we should have seen it as such and not gone in there at all.
Well, way back then, I didn’t think the Iraq war was wrong; I believed that the government was telling the truth, and I was afraid of the next attack that was certain to come. The idea that someone like Colin Powell could stand in front of the UN and declare so clearly that Iraq was a threat to us, when he was actually wrong, never crossed my mind. I’m no war supporter, but if ever there was a righteous battle, taking on those who had already attacked the US and would again by any means possible seemed like the right thing to do. And I would support doing the same thing someplace else, if there was a real threat, hopefully next time with a more informed decision not based on blind trust. Many who claim to have always known it was wrong are practicing selective memory.
So going after those who attacked us was and still is the right thing to do. As it turned out, we went after the wrong guy. I agree with you that the insistence of the Bush administration that everything they were doing was right, their ignoring of Abu Ghraib, or at least pretending it was justified, and, in general, their inability or unwillingness to admit error is the greatest sin. Even if they believed their own intelligence experts, it was clear shortly after we invaded Iraq that they were not the threat we were told they were. I’d like to think that if Bush had admitted the mistake and taken responsibility to fix the error, that I would have more respect for him than I now do. But again, that’s 20/20 hindsight, and there were plenty of other reasons to dislike Bush, IMHO.
It will be interesting to read the perspectives of those who also read I Was Wrong.
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