Resisting Intervention

Election years are typically full of the kind of vulgar sound and fury calculated to make sensible people despair of the possibility of civilized life. In his remarkable autobiography, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” (an underappreciated masterpiece that deserves a much wider audience) the American essayist Albert Jay Nock tells of the “wigwam,” or political headquarters in the Brooklyn where he grew up (which was virtually countryside).

The building’s salient feature was the crowd of loud and loutish characters who hung around, and on election night they were all loud, shouting and many falling-down-drunk. Perhaps his account was tinged by a lifetime of courteously despising politics and politicians, but he claimed that the carrying-on at the “wigwam” he observed as a mere lad put him off ever expecting anything sensible or constructive from the kind of people who found politics worth a considerable investment of their time. And thus most reflective people still view politics and politicians. It didn’t start with Howard Dean’s primal scream.

There is one compensation in this election year, however. Unless another massive terrorist attack occurs, the calculus of reelection as taught by Professor Karl Rove dictates no more major interventions or overseas adventures. The president and his men may try to keep spinning the situation in Iraq as going just swimmingly, but behind closed doors they simply have to know better. From their perspective, the imperative is to get out – or close enough to out that we can pretend to have transferred sovereignty and begun the glorious and inevitable path toward true democracy – so that the obvious problems of the aftermath of war don’t become an election issue. If they can keep the images of brave Americans and embedded reporters sweeping toward Baghdad, the toppling of Saddam’s statue, and perhaps the capture of Saddam looking like a down-and-out street beggar as the main memories Americans retain, that will be just fine with them.


The latest evidence of this desire to place and keep the war and its aftermath in the past is Secretary of State Colin Powell’s apparent flip-flop on the timing of the handover. A few days ago he was murmuring that perhaps Iraqis wouldn’t be ready to assume control of their own destiny (or even as much of it as American policymakers intend to cede to them) by June 30, the arbitrary but very political date the administration has chosen. Within a day or so, however, he was stressing that the date was firm and the transition would begin then, whether elections had been held or not. A promise is a promise.

That suggests very strongly to me that the Bushies have absorbed not only the lesson that the aftermath of the war has not caused them to be seen in an especially flattering light, but that the potential is there for a serious backlash from the electorate. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll more than half of Americans now believe Bush either lied or exaggerated evidence of Iraq’s elusive “weapons of mass destruction” to justify going to war. Specifically, 21 percent believe Bush lied about the threat, while 31 percent thought he exaggerated but did not lie, Other polls show similar results.

In the Post-ABC poll, the percentage of Americans who approve of what Bush is doing now is down to 50 percent, the lowest level of his presidency, down 8 points from January. Only 48 percent of Americans now believe the war was worth fighting, while 50 percent said the war was not worth it. The Bushies can read and interpret polls with the best of them.

The war that had led so many to see Bush as a great leader threatens to become a liability. That’s a powerful compensation for the lies, vulgarity and hysteria that accompany an election year. Does anyone doubt that if it weren’t for the upcoming election they would be listening with a sympathetic ear to the neocon enthusiasts who would love to see Syria, Iran and maybe North Korea invaded next?


If we hope to take enough advantage of this situation to the benefit of peace and freedom, however, it will be important to push the scope of the discussion beyond the limited realm to which the administration would prefer to confine it. President Bush has created a commission to get “all the facts” about possible intelligence failures prior to the invasion of Iraq. This looks very much like shifting whatever blame cannot be hidden from public view to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which is hardly the real point. A more important issue is whether the commission will have the independence to investigate why the Bush administration interpreted the intelligence that was available in such a way as to conclude that the United States had no other option than to initiate a war.

Thus war critics of all stripes should insist on discussing whether, even if Iraq did have nasty weapons of many sorts, did it pose such a grave threat to the national security of the United States – even national security viewed much more broadly than you or I might define it – that war was the only choice available. Remember, the administration began laying the groundwork for the war in the 2002 State of the Union address, when it declared Iraq to be part of the “axis of evil,” 10 months before the CIA published its hurried October 2002 assessment of Iraq’s WMD (which, by the way, contained many more qualifications and caveats than the public summary). So it is unlikely that intelligence estimates, whether flawed or flawless, had much of an impact on the president’s decision in the final analysis. That decision was George W. Bush’s. The main issue the American people need to consider is not the quality of the work of intelligence analysts – although there’s little question it could stand improvement – but on the judgment of the president and his advisers, on their interpretation of the data at their disposal, and their reasons for interpreting the data as they did.


So was the “intelligence community” – mainly the CIA – responsible for misinterpreting sketchy intelligence about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons (or programs to build them) prior to the war in Iraq, or was it policymakers in the Bush administration who wanted a stronger justification they could sell to the American people exaggerate the threat? It may be useful once again (though I’ve been over this territory before) to consider such questions in light of the differences between a preemptive and a preventive war. As good an interviewer as Tim Russert kept using the word “preemptive,” but as the term is generally understood that is not the kind of action the Bush administration took.

International relations theory, and the set of customs, preferences and agreements some choose to dignify with the seldom accurate term, international law, makes provisions for preemptive war. It’s when a threat is unquestionably imminent. Troops massing on borders is the model, but it could be intercepted messages, intelligence about positioning bombers or revealing that missiles are being retargeted . The country about to be attacked strikes first to avoid defeat or huge numbers of casualties, and most theorists of the quintessentially amoral realm of international relations will give it a moral pass.

A preventive war is one designed to eliminate a possible or potential threat posed by another country (or in this day and age, by a stateless terrorist organization). Since nobody can be sure exactly what a leader will do in different circumstances, a preventive war is more of a dicey proposition, and reliable intelligence is especially important (although we are already starting to hear neocon publicists argue that the less you know for sure the more important it is to strike quickly, which is a formula for endless war, which may just be what they really want). In the real world, however, one may turn out to be attacking phantoms or threats that never materialize. International law (such as it is) does not authorize preventive war, viewing it as aggression.

It should be clear, then, that even if Iraq had oodles of chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons, what the United States initiated last year was a preventive war. Did it prevent a real threat? That seems dubious now. Did it eliminate an odious dictator who might have become a threat again? Yes. Are the Iraqi people better off? Time will tell.


The point I hope at least some critics will be able to press in as many public fora as possible is that we don’t think the United States should be in the business of initiating preventive wars. Not only will adherence to the idea that preventive war should be fixed policy lead to endless war and the creation of endless enemies abroad, war leads to intensive growth in government power (including, as now, strictly domestic programs) and pressures to squelch skepticism about such growth as unhelpful sniping or even unpatriotic. See Robert Higgs’ classic book, Crisis and Leviathan for the dreary details on how it worked throughout the 20th century.

The Democrats are complaining about the composition of the president’s commission. They should be focusing on making sure it has a chance to deal with the real issues. Intelligence is by its nature always incomplete and capable of being interpreted in different ways. The key issue is policy. Do Americans want their country to be the kind of place that initiates preventive wars on a regular basis? This question is more fundamental than whether we’ll go to war only when we have enough allies, when the CIA has ironclad intelligence, or when the U.N. gives its blessing.

It is difficult for a country that welcomes opportunities to initiate preventive wars to remain free and prosperous for long, for war is not only the health of the State, it is the antithesis of peaceful commerce. Debate during his election year should center around whether, in light of our experience in Iraq, we approve a policy of preventive war. Intelligence is important, but the desire to initiate wars on the basis of potential rather than imminent threats is the heart of the matter.

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).