The Iraq War, If David Frum Were God

22 Mar

David FrumI was for the Iraq War, after the former secretary of State, Colin Powell, lied to the United Nations with his vial of powder, and then I realized that I had been wrong. So, I can speak about the folly of emotion and take my contrition, to run with far more radical criticisms of war than obviously David Frum can entertain.

First, though, Robert Wright quotes Paul Pillar:

Pillar, like me, hopes Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons, for reasons he spells out. But the common belief that war would be preferable to a nuclear Iran looks weaker when you do what he recommends, and try to think clearly about what threats a nuclear Iran would actually pose.

That belief looks weaker still when you think clearly about the consequences of war. Pillar does a good job of explaining why conceiving of air strikes as surgical is confused, given the many reasons to believe they would lead to a wider war and/or the invasion and occupation of Iran.

And he makes the crucial point that the pro-war case mounted by hawks depends on a paradox: They posit the best-case scenario for how an attack on Iran would play out (limited or no retaliation), while positing the worst-case scenario for how Iran’s possessing nuclear weapons would play out. The former assumes Iran is careful to the point of timidity, and the latter assumes Iran is reckless, even crazy. You can’t have it both ways. Yet it’s only by having it both ways that hawks make war sound worthwhile.

Minus historical and cultural context, I think Pillar’s argument is applicable to Iran and North Korea as well. But, I really have to admire how Frum frames his “reconsidering” of the Iraq War”, in his “mea culpa” and in a BhTV exclusive with Robert Wright. The blustery tale of a speechwriter’s travail to choose between “hatred” and “evil” is nothing short of humblebrag. That’s just the least of his service. Frum is still a true believer in preemption and intervention. And, Frum’s framing of the historical and political context of the invasion of Iraq is heinous.

In October, I attended a crowded briefing in the fourth-floor auditorium of the Executive Office Building, at which the Secret Service explained its plans to protect the White House against a biological attack. They weren’t very reassuring. Basically, we’d all be dead. Even more disturbing were the small-session briefings by staffers for the new Homeland Security adviser. They warned of simultaneous car bombings at strategic intersections, targeted assassinations of officials as they retrieved their morning papers from their stoops, and poisonous gases released in Metro stations.

Like many Washingtonians, my wife and I had prepared an emergency kit in the basement: canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, batteries. We had an evacuation plan, a rendezvous point two hours outside the city, and a stipulated wait time after which she was to presume I was a casualty.

These anxieties may sound luridly overdramatic today, but they suffused the mental atmosphere of the government of the United States as President Bush made the fateful decision to launch the Iraq War.

How about a little fear-mongering just to reinforce the original memories of the same fear-mongering? Frum emphasizes the long-running roots of the decision to decapitate Iraq once and for all without ever bringing up the Wolfowitz doctrine with a brilliant rhetorical flourish, all wrapped in his humblebrag about his speechwriting role, that he wrote “as if” that foregone conclusion to invade were still the topic of intense administration debate.

You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. There was certainly plenty to discuss: unlike the 1991 Gulf War, there was no immediate crisis demanding a rapid response; unlike Vietnam, the U.S. entered the war fully aware that it was commencing a major commitment.

Yet that discussion never really happened, not the way that most people would have imagined anyway. For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past.

I’ll have to resist stealing that last flourish.

Finally, there’s this incredible feint to domestic politics and a longer view.

The Iraq War was not only an American war. Depending on how exactly you count, as many as 49 nations sent forces to Iraq. Poles fought in Iraq, and Koreans, and Danes, and Australians, and New Zealanders, and Spaniards, and Georgians. Canada sent trainers; Germany sent money. The largest allied contingent came of course from Britain, where the debate over the war raged even hotter than in the United States.

Blair, who had previously led his country into humanitarian military campaigns in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, laid more stress on the liberation of the Iraqi people and less on WMDs. Perhaps Blair’s version of the argument should have been heard as a warning that the WMD case was not as strong as the Bush administration made it out to be. At the time, though, Blair’s human-rights case for war reinforced the Bush administration’s national-security case.

Brits sometimes question how crucial Blair was in the run-up to war. My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that it was Blair, not Bush, who swayed Democrats in Congress and liberal hawks in the media. Without Blair, the Iraq War would have been authorized with only the smallest handful of non-Republican votes.

How about a little chastising of “liberals” for their support for the Balkan adventures, just so that in the future, neoconservatives can taunt them with hypocrisy?

Next to all this architecture, the main argument for Frum’s continuing faith in intervention and preemption looks harmless.

The main reason that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program dwindled away after 1996 was that Saddam had run short of money with oil prices falling to $20 a barrel and less. (In 1998, the inflation-adjusted price of oil dropped to the lowest level since the Great Depression.) Iran decelerated its nuclear program at the same time, likely for the same reason. But the economic surge in China and India after 2004 pushed the price of oil back toward $100 a barrel. That surge would have happened, Iraq War or no Iraq War. What kind of force would Saddam have been in the region if his income had tripled or quadrupled?

There’s also a rebuttal of the “trigger” vs. “introduce” theme: sectarian violence would have increased regardless of what the United States did.

The rest, in the grand sweep of time, is just facts.

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