The Justifications Crumble

When Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post, who earlier did a piece on how the rest of the media were downplaying expressions of affection for Americans among Iraqis (a story several pro-war readers helpfully emailed to me), that the United States seems to be blowing the occupation, you know things can’t be going especially well in Baghdad. The Post was as militantly pro-war as any paper in the country. But its reporter, who a few days earlier was so eager to point out signs of pro-U.S. sentiment, seemed a little down in the dumps about bureaucratic incompetence.

In his opinion column last Friday, Foreman quotes Sgt. Johnny Perdue of the 4/64 Scouts, the outfit with which he was embedded, thus:"We ain’t helping these people. It’s just so f—ing frustrating. ORHA [Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid, the troubled agency civilian proconsul L. Paul Bremer officially heads] say they’re doing it. Well, they’re not doing it in the places we go."

Foreman also talked to another soldier: "’I’m no bleeding heart,’ says Sgt. Leon "Pete" Peters (who had more than his share of kills during the fighting south of the city). ‘I’ll pull the trigger quick as anyone. But this place is going to go crazy if we can’t find a way to help these people … I’ve been here for more than 30 days and I’ve yet to see a single yellow humanitarian food package.’"

Foreman twits Bremer for saying, in a news conference last Thursday, that "more Iraqis have access to electricity than ever before." Foreman’s comment: "This laughable untruth will diminish his credibility with the locals."

That’s assuming, of course, that he had any credibility with the locals to diminish.


This apparent failure to establish even the rudiments of what passes for civilized order in the semi-modern world – electricity, running water, an occasional deterrent against looting and other acts of criminality – let alone anything resembling significant moves toward a semi-indigenous Iraqi government or the trappings of a civil society, is only a piece of what is shaping up as a massive failure to validate any of the justifications for war employed by American leaders during the run-up to war.

We haven’t brought democracy, and last week Mr. Bremer announced that it would be even longer than he originally thought before any significant aspects of governance and administration would be turned over to actual Iraqis. We haven’t quite gotten to the point we were a few years ago in Bosnia, when former President Clinton kept offering estimates of how much longer U.S. troops would have to stay on the ground there – three months, six months, a year, 18 months, then dropping the subject as U.S. troops remained (to this day) – but it is almost as ludicrous.

Bringing democracy was the "final answer" once the war had actually begun, the high-minded-sounding real purpose of an attack on a country that did not directly threaten the United States and had not actively threatened its neighbors for years. Before that U.S. spokesmen actually talked of an active nuclear-weapons program. Then they talked about weapons of mass destruction (a clever PR category that is more propagandistic than descriptive). Before that U.S. strategists were just sure as they could be that there were direct links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

All along, U.S. war advocates assured us that the invasion was necessary to prevent future terrorist acts here and abroad. The more cautious of them refrained from guaranteeing that the invasion would reduce terrorist incidents to zero, but they strongly implied, in their usually weasel-worded pronouncements, that terrorist activities would diminish once we had eliminated the nasty regime in Baghdad that was sponsoring – or might sponsor if we didn’t get on it right away – terrorist activities on a frightening scale.

None of these justifications for war have panned out. And it’s just possible that significant portions of the American people are starting to catch on.


Among the more persuasive indictments of the weapons-of-mass-destruction arguments was Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker last weak about the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, conceived by Asst. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and headed by Abram Shulsky, a former Senate Intelligence Committee, Pentagon and RAND Corporation staffer. According to Hersh:

"They relied on data gathered by other intelligence agencies and also on information provided by the Iraqi National Congress, or I.N.C., the exile group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. By last fall, the operation rivaled both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency, the D.I.A., as President Bush’s main source of intelligence regarding Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction and connection with Al Qaeda. As of last week, no such weapons have been found. And although many people, within the Administration and outside it, profess confidence that something will turn up, the integrity of much of that intelligence is now in question."

The Office of Special Plans was something like the "Team B" group put together by anti-communist activists and scholars in the 1970s, when they were convinced that U.S. intelligence agencies were underestimating the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism in general. That team was given access to much of the "raw" data the C.I.A. and other agencies were using to develop their assessments and reports, and came up with conclusions suggesting that the official agencies had missed significant threats or downplayed evidence of aggressive actions or intentions.

The OSP similarly took intelligence data available to the C.I.A. and just interpreted it differently. It’s not difficult to see how this could happen. Most intelligence data are at least somewhat incomplete and ambivalent. The significance can often depend on the assumptions one brings to the task of analysis. When the OSP folks looked at information, they tended to see as confirmation of weapons of mass destruction at a particular site what others might view as shaky or even countervailing evidence. That, of course, was what administration spokesmen wanted to hear, so the reports from the outfit that gave them pro-war ammo came to be viewed more favorably.

Unfortunately, almost none of the information has panned out. Special forces even went in to several of the sites identified as holding WMDs before the "real" war began, and found nothing.

Interestingly, a number of reasonably well-connected conservatives in Washington – not in the administration but in several of the policy lobbies that operate in the Imperial City – with whom I was talking last week about other issues pointed out Hersh’s article to me. Some said it changed the way they thought about how policy had been made in recent months and how justifiable the war was. One friend suggested that the war with Iraq would almost certainly prove to be the high point of neoconservative influence in the Bush administration.

Not only can the neocons not carry a single precinct (and quite visibly lusted after anybody but Bush before it became obvious that Bush had secured the GOP nomination), but they set up an "intelligence" operation that systematically fed top officials faulty intelligence that may yet come back to be a major embarrassment. Supposedly, the Bushies are aware of the warlust problem and are determined not to trust these people again.

All that may be true, but so far the administration hasn’t moved to fire Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith or any of the other prominent neocons in top Defense policy positions. Richard Perle, after a possible conflict-of-interest scandal threatened, removed himself from the chairmanship but remains a member of the defense policy advisory board. And it is possible that the desire to take out Saddam was not just something force-fed on President Bush by a clever cabal of conspirators, but what he wanted to do with or without the faulty intelligence. He may have a similar attitude about North Korea, although so far the administration has been a bit more circumspect in dealing with Kim Jong Il.


I‘m still not ruling out that some chemical and biological weapons or the means to produce them might be found in Iraq. Iraq is, after all (as administration spokesmen must be getting tired of reminding us) a big country with lots of potential hiding places.

What the efforts to date suggest strongly, however, is that the notion that caches of chemical and biological weapons were readily available and just maybe on the verge of being deployed against the U.S. or U.S. "interests" (very broadly defined) was a falsehood from the get-go. Military and intelligence people have already been to most of the places identified by intelligence reports of variable validity, and to some identified by more recent defectors and detainees.

Those would have been the weapons that could have been actually deployed in a reasonable amount of time. Weapons that might be found in the future, almost by definition, would be those that would have taken time, trouble and resources before they could be effectively deployed. There simply was no threat that could even be stretched to be viewed as imminent. The war was – and was almost certainly known by its perpetrators to be – a war of choice rather than necessity.


Then there’s the wave of terrorist activities during the last week or so. Riyadh. Casablanca. Five suicide bombings in three days (or two depending on how you measure them) against Israel.

Wasn’t the war supposed to bring about a noticeable reduction in such activities?

It is too early, and it would probably be too facile to say that the U.S. invasion of Iraq actually caused any of last week’s terrorist attacks or made any of them more likely than they would have been in the absence of the invasion. Further investigation – some arrests have already been made, but the process is just beginning – might tell us with a bit more accuracy whether the invasion was at least a partial motivator for some of these acts, or whether any of them might have been prevented had not U.S. attention been diverted toward military adventures in Iraq. It is also possible, of course, that we will never know for sure just what lies behind some of them.

It is not difficult to conclude, however, that the war failed to reduce the likelihood or intensity of terrorist attacks. Thus on that level it failed to accomplish what its sponsors hoped it would accomplish.

No WMDs, no really close al-Qaida connections, no reduction in terrorist attacks, no democracy in Iraq, no demonstration of U.S. competence at administration or the provision of humanitarian aid, no example for the rest of the Middle East to emulate. And the possibility of changes in American attitude as these truths begin to sink in.

How do you like your war now, Mr. President?

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).