Josh Marshall spent some time ruminating on the origins of the Iraq War yesterday, but I think he missed a key piece of the puzzle. Neoconservatives were – and still are – longing for ‘The Good War.’ (More)
Iraq and Longing for ‘The Good War’ (Non-Cynical Saturday)
This week Jeb Bush put the Iraq War back on the political agenda. As Bush spent four days flipping and flopping, Republican primary opponents whose bellicosity knew no bounds just a week ago now declared that they would never have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now.”
The new GOP narrative of the Iraq War as a well-meaning but ill-informed mistake drew rebuttals from Paul Waldman and Josh Marshall, who explained why the decision to invade Iraq was not driven by bad information. Instead, the neocons’ long-standing intention to invade Iraq drove the production of bad information, transforming poorly-sourced rumors into “slam dunk” facts, served up to and swallowed whole by a media still reeling from 9/11.
“It won’t be a World War III”
Yet that begs another question: why were neocons so determined to invade Iraq?
Josh Marshall tried to answer that question yesterday. He writes that the neocons truly believed Saddam Hussein still had stocks of the chemical weapons he had used against his own people. They coined “weapons of mass destruction” to create a catch-all buzz phrase that encompassed everything from poison gas shells to nuclear warheads. When National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice warned CNN’s Wolf Blitzer “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she was quite consciously playing on that conflation of chemical weapons (which the administration was sure Saddam had) with nuclear weapons (which they knew he was nowhere near having). Marshall explains:
It was certainly possible that the [Hussein] regime had someone brainstorming about ways to get nuclear material. So maybe they were going to luck out, as it were. But fundamentally, I think they were confident they’d find some chemical weapons. And that would check the box. Not finding any nuclear program wasn’t going to be a problem.
In other words, they expected an interview like this:
ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We told you Saddam had WMDs and here’s the proof. These are sarin gas shells we recovered from a warehouse in Baghdad. Just one drop of sarin can kill an adult, so these shells could have killed thousands or even tens of thousands.
REPORTER: But … did Saddam have any nuclear weapons?
OFFICIAL: We stopped him before he could build those, thank God.
As for claims that the war would be over quickly – such as Donald Rumsfeld’s statement that it would be “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that. It won’t be a World War III” – those were outright lies:
The architects of the war knew that equipping the invasion and occupation in a way that would ultimately prove necessary would dramatically up the costs of the endeavor and make it a much tougher sell. So let’s chalk this up to self-interested self-deception and culpable negligence. The key was to get in and make it happen, create a fait accompli. Once that happened there’d be no easy getting out.
“Chaos wasn’t a problem. It was actually the goal”
And why get into Iraq at all? Marshall offers this explanation:
At some level I think it had simply become an idee fixe for many of these people. Because for many of them, when I would have frank conversations with them, they had a difficult time getting past the rationales, even in what I think were off-the-record and unguarded conversations. The real underlying reason, to the extent there was one, was the notion of creating a transformative event, a democratizing wave in the region that would get away from managing and on to ‘solving’ deep and lingering obstacles to American power.
In this sense, chaos wasn’t a problem. It was actually the goal. They just ended up getting a very different kind of chaos from what they expected – not a wave of destabilization pushing out from Iraq and crashing over enemy states in Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia but one crashing in on the architects and the U.S. and its military itself.
He links to his 2003 article in the Washington Monthly:
In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the United States would “deal with” Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Meanwhile, neoconservative journalists have been channeling the administration’s thinking. Late last month, The Weekly Standard’s Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a “world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism … a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top Al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future.”
Contrary to Rumsfeld’s glib lie, a World War III was exactly what the Bush administration wanted. But they knew the U.S. people would never sign on for that, so they chose the rock soup approach: get U.S. troops engaged in Iraq and then insist the resulting chaos meant we had to do more … and more … until we had either conquered or forced ‘regime change’ across the entire region.
“The Game of Global Domination”
Marshall gets closer than most analysts to a First Cause for the Iraq War, but I think he misses a deeper point. As a child and then a college student, George W. Bush loved the game of Risk:
W. always acts like he’s upping the ante in a board game where you roll the dice and bet your plastic army divisions on the outcome. This doesn’t surprise some of his old classmates at Yale, who remember Junior as the riskiest Risk player of them all, known for dropping by the rooms of friends, especially when they were trying to study for exams, for extended bouts of “The Game of Global Domination.”
I was never a fan of Risk, but I’ve played other wargames. Hundreds of them. My parents bought me Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad when I was 12, and I was hooked. I still play them. My most recent purchases were Columbia Games Victory, Days of Wonder’s Memoir ’44, and Victory Point Games’ Bulge 20.
Yes, all of those are World War II games. In the 1970s and 80s – the height of historical board games – World War II was the most popular setting, by far and away. And why not? There were hundreds of movies and libraries full of books about that war. My dad fought in it. So did most of my friends’ dads. People who couldn’t find Normandy on a map of France still knew about D-Day. Tom Brokaw declared the Americans who fought World War II “The Greatest Generation.”
And while Studs Terkel’s title was sardonic, most Americans saw World War II as “The Good War.” Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were evil. We were attacked, and we rose up and crushed them. Even better, we emerged from that war a global colossus. Since 1947, we called our president “the Leader of the Free World.”
Peel away the geopolitical buzz words and cloud castle rationales, drill down to the emotional core, and you find a president who played wargames but never served in war, surrounded by a like-minded coterie who wanted to play a wargame for real and revive the United States of their childhoods, a virtuous avenging force that crushed evil and declared itself defender of the Free World.
We invaded Iraq because they longed for ‘The Good War.’ And while most of them have now admitted the Iraq War was not that, you need only listen to their dire warnings about Iran and ISIS, their insistence that President Obama must define the enemy as “radical Islam,” to recognize that Republicans still long for ‘The Good War.’
So yes, we’ve seen a watershed on Iraq. But we’re still a long way from any watershed on the conservative devotion to war itself.