Iraq Rationales Getting Weaker (If That Is Possible)

I keep thinking that sooner or later a cumulative effect will kick in and the American people will succumb to the evidence that the rationales for the Iraqi war and its still-bloodier-than-expected aftermath were the fantastical and thoroughly unjustified. True, the enthusiasts are still out there (in more ways than one), but their case keeps crumbling under them.

I don’t watch Sean Hannity much any more, so I was fascinated a couple of weeks ago when he had, I believe, Jim Pinkerton on with some mild criticisms of the war. There was Sean, after all these months, declaring that he was still convinced that sooner or later those elusive WMDs were going to show up. I understand a psychological reluctance to acknowledge that one was not just wrong but dead wrong, but I wanted to shout through the imaginary two-way TV connection: “Sean, do you have any idea how pathetic that sounds at this stage?”

I was also fascinated that Hannity was convinced at that point that since the wogs in Fallujah had been given a whiff o’ the grape, the insurrection was over and order had been reestablished. No revolt, no sir. Most of the Iraqis are grateful the Americans are there. This is only an isolated incident. Nothing to worry about.

(Just to be prudent, let me suggest that I don’t completely rule out the possibility that some evidence of WMDs might yet be found, even though the administration long ago stopped referring to actual “weapons” and began to talk about “programs.” The point, even if somebody does discover a cache buried under the sand somewhere, is that there’s no way those hypothetical weapons posed anything remotely resembling an imminent threat to the United States, or to Saddam’s neighbors. An imminent threat is what could justify a preemptive war. What the Bush administration undertook was a “preventive” war, designed to eliminate a possible threat that might at some point in the undefinable future develop into a real threat. A preventive war is not generally considered justifiable under what passes for international law. What the United States undertook was an aggressive war. Sorry, but that’s the most accurate way to describe it.)


I haven’t yet read more than the excerpts run in the Washington Post and the highlights put together by Slate of Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, but what I’ve seen so far does seem rather strongly to validate what so many have said and written. The Bush administration – or at least certain elements, early on including the president – was determined even before 9/11 to have its war with Iraq. The terrorist attacks gave them the opportunity, and they constantly over-interpreted the data to give the American people the impression (shucks, maybe some of them believed it themselves) that Saddam was much more closely involved with terrorism than he was, that he might have had a hand in 9/11, and that he had those nasty weapons and lusted to use them.

Woodward apparently doesn’t connect the dots as definitively as some of us would, perhaps concerned about jeopardizing what has apparently been unusual access to the president himself. But the dots are there for others to connect. Whenever the final no-turning-back decision was actually made, this gang was hall-bent on war pretty much from the time it took office.

I am about halfway through Richard A. Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (fuller report to follow) and it tells very much the same story. Was Bush really intimidating on September 12, when he pushed Clarke to keep digging for a Saddam-9/11 connection? Who knows? But he clearly wanted the connection to be there, and not just for academic reasons. The war, deeply desired by the Cheney-Wolfowitz axis of neos long before 9/11, was virtually inevitable once 9/11 happened.

I hope more Americans are coming to understand what Clarke asserts in his book: “Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes to our subsequent calls for reform in their region. It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.'”

I’m also working on Ron Suskind’s book – again, more later, when I’ve finished it and had a chance to digest it more thoroughly – starring former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and the story there is similar as well. The Bushies were talking about Iraq at the first National Security Council meeting O’Neill attended, in January 2001.


The world makes one pay for bad decisions, however. The situation in Iraq is not getting better, whatever some people might believe and however some might want to spin it.

In the midst of the ongoing violence – with Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer declaring that the Iraqis simply won’t have the capability to ensure security after June 30 – it almost seems secondary to discuss what happens when the United States turns over something resembling sovereignty to something resembling an interim Iraqi governing body. But for various reasons, not the least of which is President Bush’s apparent determination to adhere to the date, some kind of transfer is likely to take place, although even some in the administration are talking openly about “symbolic” sovereignty rather than actual sovereignty..

Which makes Lakhdar Brahimi a key player. A veteran Algerian diplomat, Mr. Brahimi is the United Nations’ designated mediator in Iraq.

As a Sunni Muslim who once headed the Arab league when it was playing footsie with Saddam Hussein, one may wonder how much influence he will have with Iraq’s majority Shias. But President Bush, apparently lacking a transfer-of-power plan of his own, has said the United States will go along with whatever transfer plan Mr. Brahimi includes in a report due to be delivered to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a week or so.

Mr. Brahimi has shared the general outline of his plan. He wants to disband the current Iraqi Governing Council and replace it with a an interim council of “technocrats”, its members to be appointed jointly by the UN and the Coalition. It will be headed by one president, two vice presidents and a prime minister, mirroring the proposed interim Iraqi constitution and seeking to accommodate the three major ethnic/religious groups, the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds.


Sometime in July, a national conference reflecting all the various factions in Iraq – somewhat analogous to the traditional loya jirga that met in Afghanistan before forming a government – is supposed to meet to plan elections for next January.

How much involvement will the UN have in all this? “That’s all up to Kofi Annan,” Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me on the telephone. “He’s not revealing much,” and probably won’t until we see how the insurgency is going and he has a chance to make an assessment about how much peril UN functionaries will be facing..

Ms. Ottaway believes there is just a chance that if Ayatollah Sistani and other Shia clerics take on radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and convince him to settle down – and if the council of Sunni clerics in Fallujah has enough moral authority to enforce the cease-fire in Fallujah – there is a chance of a modicum of peace and security. But she isn’t taking any bets. She didn’t quite say so, but I got the strong impression that she would be inclined to bet against any of this happening.

It seems likely that under the best of circumstances at least 130,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for the indefinite future. For Iraq’s sake and our own, we should be planning to disengage as quickly as feasible. The only alternative seems to be doubling the troop commitment – and, as trial-ballooners like Sen. Chuck Hagel are suggesting strongly, a return to conscription – and putting down the insurgency brutally and decisively.

Would a brutal and “decisive” military action really contribute to pacification, or would it, as Dick Clarke strongly suggests, be more likely to increase discontent with the American occupation. The naive faith some war enthusiasts have in strong action and “staying the course” might be touching in some ways, but it hardly seems prudent or realistic.


In the midst of the ongoing carnage, President Bush has appointed veteran diplomat John Negroponte, now the US ambassador to the United Nations, to be the ambassador to Iraq, heading what is slated to be the largest US embassy in the world, with 3,000 employees. His job, which will in some ways be more like nation-building than traditional diplomacy, will be daunting to say the last.

Some elements of America’s intransigent left have never forgiven Mr. Negroponte for being closely involved, as ambassador to Honduras, in the Reagan administration’s efforts to unseat the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Otherwise, the career diplomat has a solid reputation. The fact that he does not have Middle East experience and doesn’t speak Arabic, however, will not help.

I talked to Edward Peck, now retired from the State Department, who was chief of mission in Baghdad from 1977 to 1980, and you can catch more of what he has had to say recently at the Council for the National Interest. Most ambassadors, even though they are subject to control from Washington, he reminded me, have a certain amount of discretion. But “More than any ambassador in the world, everything Mr. Negroponte does will be completely controlled – and closely and critically watched.”

L. Paul Bremer, Mr. Peck noted, drew a lot of heat for closing the al-Sadr newspaper that seems to have started the unrest is “Sadr City.” But “that wasn’t his decision,” Peck told me. “He was told to do that.”

Some cynics say Mr. Negroponte will in fact be governor general or proconsul of Iraq. However, his position will be more delicate than that.

If the interim Iraqi council is to be useful to the United States, it must have enough real power to convince various Iraqi factions that it is not simply a tool of the American “imperial” occupying army. However, the more power the interim council has, the more incentive Iraqis will have to fight over it, and the more difficult it will be to constitute it with minimal conflict.

Between Iraq and a hard place, anyone?

The base problem, according to Cato Institute vice president for defense and international relations Ted Carpenter, is that “the insurgency is growing broader and more lethal by the day.” If it isn’t brought under control soon, managing Iraq may be beyond the capacity of even the most experienced and competent diplomat imaginable.

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).