Rabbi’s Essays

Iraq: Mid-Decade Assessment

Five years ago, before the first shots were fired in the second Persian Gulf War, I wrote: “The Bush Administration wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein in the worst way.and they are going about it in the worst way!” Little did I know that this was an understatement.

By this point in time it is no longer especially insightful or politically courageous to call the U.S. adventure in Iraq a massive boondoggle. Outside of a very tiny coterie of Bush supporters, no one—not even those who might approve of American military actions right now—have been consistently in favor of this expensive, deadly, messy and extraordinarily inconclusive incursion. As the five year anniversary of Operation Shock and Awe approaches, let us take stock, particularly with respect to how this misadventure has affected Jews and Israel.

How did this happen?

First, it is worth remembering that there were very good reasons for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a moral monster. Paul Berman, a liberal writer and political thinker, noted back in 2003, that military action against Saddam was nearly inevitable. Since the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq had been under severe restrictions. In addition to the weapons inspections that had destroyed virtually all of its war-making capability by 1998, and the no-fly zones in the north and south parts of the country, there were the economic sanctions that thoroughly crippled Iraq’s economy. Trade and investment in the nation was virtually nil. A U.N.-administered oil-for-food program was supposed to assure a minimal safety net of necessities for Iraq’s population.

What funds Iraq could acquire, particularly through corruption of oil-for-food, was going toward maintaining Saddam himself and a thin layer of the country’s politically connected elite. The Kurds in the north had worked a modus vivendi with Baghdad that permitted them some autonomy and a modest level of material well-being. The rest of the nation—its central, western and southern regions—were suffering.

The deprivation throughout Iraq was becoming enough of an international issue that in the early part of the decade, the pressure was growing to have the sanctions lifted. Uncovering the corruption in the U.N. program was certainly did not help. In late summer 2001, the situation was already coming to a head. In essence, Saddam was winning. By employing increasing oppression and tolerating intolerable levels of misery throughout the country, he was forcing world opinion to drop the sanctions. His grip on the nation would then be that much stronger. The sanctions might be lifted but the misery would only increase, and Saddam’s sons—probably worse than their father—were growing in power within the country. Something had to give.

The attack of 9/11, I believe, was less a catalyst to action on Iraq as it was a complicating agent. The problem of Saddam and sanctions was put temporarily on a back burner as the U.S., and the world, turned its focus on ‘al-Qaida and its host, the Taliban of Afghanistan. Through the balance of 2001 and early 2002, Iraq was not particularly in the news, but the problem Saddam posed within a human rights perspective had hardly gone away.

Why Invade?

It is my sense that most readers of this essay were not especially aware of—or at least at this point five years later, had forgotten about—this particular burgeoning crisis over Iraq. The debate that began to brew in earnest during the summer 2002 regarding Saddam and Iraq highlighted terror links to ‘al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction. Let me state my firm belief that neither terrorism nor WMD were a reason for the war.

After 1991, Iraq had been thoroughly inspected regarding its weapons cache, and by 1996, it had been sufficiently cleaned out of any capacity to engage in aggressive war-making. Even as the inspections had ended in the late 90s, the nation remained under intense scrutiny. In 2002, with fevered cries arising from the Administration that Saddam is building a massive stockpile of non-conventional weapons, many expert observers quietly stated that there was no evidence for such claims, and it was highly unlikely that he had anything useful or dangerous.

Were the CIA and other intelligence agencies wrong in their claims? Did the Bush Administration really thinking Saddam was building up a new chemical arsenal or producing nuclear bombs in the basement of one of his palaces? I frankly doubt it. The war began in mid-March, cutting short a new U.N.-mandated inspection regime that had been operating since the fall, precisely because the Administration could not afford to have the inspectors look too long, and therefore increase doubt that any WMD would be found!

Yes, I believe Bush, Chaney, Tenet, Rice, et. al., were lying. Yet, I do not believe this conclusion is as damning as it would appear. The White House’s aim was to make war is Iraq. People do not support war—that is, putting themselves and loved ones in harm’s way—without a strong belief that there is something worse than a number of soldiers’ deaths. The public, or at least a sufficient number of them, had to be convinced that the sacrifice of a few (or even many) American deaths was worth the outcome. If the value of removing Saddam was sufficiently high in philosophic, political, and/or long-run strategic terms, then the ruse of claiming that the U.S. was in physical or existential danger might be worth it. (You might think I am claiming that it is legitimate to assert the ends justify the means. In this case, the means is not lying or dissembling about WMDs, it is placing individuals in physical danger. Such determination always requires a difficult balancing of values: how many soldiers should die for what end?) WMDs were therefore an excuse, but not a reason for the invasion.

A number of reasons, however, can be put forward:

  • Militarily, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to promote and prove his doctrine that the U.S. can successfully prosecute a war with a relatively small but technologically sophisticated fighting force. Thus, the Department of Defense took the lead over the State Department in maneuvering the U.S. into a fighting posture. Note that Rumsfeld’s doctrine was a direct challenge to Colin Powell (Secretary of State) who had favored massive numerical superiority when prosecuting the first Gulf War.
  • In the field of international relations, key advisors felt that Saddam had to be toppled as a matter of projecting and reinforcing unchallenged American power in the world. The end of the Cold War had left the U.S. as the only superpower, and it was critical for the President to preserve and enhance that status. The invasion of Iraq was a “shot across the bow” of any entity that presumed to confront American world dominance.
  • Philosophically, Iraq was a likely subject for democratization. It had a relatively large educated and professional class (including women), and a mostly secularized culture. All that was needed was to remove Saddam’s reign of terror. A liberated Iraq could then be the springboard for democratization projects in Iran and the rest of the Arab Middle East.
  • Personally, there was George W. Bush’s complex relationship with his father. The elder Bush had Iraq’s armed forces scrambling in retreat from Kuwait, but let Saddam remain in power. Hussein returned the favor by attempting to assassinate him. Saddam’s removal was a matter of family honor.
  • Politically, pressing for an invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam could be used as a partisan wedge issue. Even though there were prominent Republicans—from foreign policy realist Brent Scowcroft to isolationist Pat Buchanan—who opposed military action, and a number of Democrats who favored it, the Administration deftly pushed Congressional Democrats, especially Senators who had a one-vote majority, into a corner just before the 2002 mid-term elections.
  • Finally, economically, Iraq has the second largest oil reserve in the world. Its market had been severely restricted both by the sanctions and by Saddam’s continued grip on the nation and its resources. Certainly an Administration filled with individuals closely tied to the oil industry would see great value in freeing this industry.

Winners and Losers

I think it is clear that all of these reasons—and the first one I mentioned regarding the sanctions crisis—contributed to the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam. In hindsight, however, it is also clear that the serious thinking regarding invasion and ‘regime change’ only extended to roughly May 1, 2003, the day President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier festooned with the banner “Mission Accomplished.” Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post journalist and author of one the nearly uncountable books on the Iraq war, Fiasco, has remarked that the Administration prosecuted the war and its aftermath with exclusive consideration of best case scenarios. He added that one does not even plan a wedding that way!

And once more with clarifying hindsight, this situation seems to fit the personalities and aims of the three principal promoters of the war: Rumsfeld, Chaney and Bush.

Donald Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense in order to recast America’s armed forces. He wanted to reduce its reliance on military personnel, halt spending on materiel designed to support a large ground force, and pour spending in the newest technologies. For him, Iraq represented an excellent stage in which to prove the capabilities of a slimmed down but highly advanced attack force. (Primitive Afghanistan was hardly a good example.) So, within weeks, Iraq regular army and elite guard had been routed. Old-time military commanders, like General Anthony Zinni (who had pushed for an invasion force of over 300,000) and by implication Colin Powell, were rebuffed. The Rumsfeld Doctrine had succeeded admirably. By May 1, Rumsfeld’s goals had been achieved, and I would guess that as far as he was concerned, the management of Iraq was now someone else’s responsibility. [I think of the line by the satirist Tom Lehrer regarding the noted émigré German rocket scientist: “I send them up/Who cares where they come down/That’s not my department/says Werner von Braun.]

Vice President Dick Cheney has been untiring in his promotion of the unfettered power of the Executive Branch in time of war. He also seems to believe that it always a time of war. The enemy is always at the gates. Some call this attitude the paranoiac style. I think rather it suggests a thoroughly pessimistic and dyspeptic view of humankind. Life, at very best, for Cheney is nasty, brutal and short. Thus, it is only prudent to get them before they get you. Planning after the invasion of Iraq, in his mind was probably a useless waste of time. Even the most thorough and carefully thought out plans would probably fail. Why bother?

Finally, there is President Bush, certainly the laziest person intellectually to occupy the White House in the last hundred years. The track record of this entire Administration has been to take the easiest line of action; that which requires the least amount of serious planning and follow-through. Ideas have been promoted—hydrogen power, stopping genocide in Darfur, promoting a Palestinian State, privatizing Social Security, among many others—that were pronounced in earnestness and then quietly dropped. It strikes me moreover that Bush is a firm believer in karma. He was an accidental President, and his re-election was the narrowest of any returned incumbent in American history. For Bush, as Rumsfeld once put it, “stuff happens.” He seems perfectly willing to allow some long-term perspective of history—well after he is dead and gone—to judge whether anything in this oddly detached Presidency is to be praised.

Because they have been unapologetic and basically impervious to criticism, these three have come out as more winners than losers. Bush and Cheney got two full terms and control of Congress from 2002 through 2006, which, if nothing else, has allowed for the near creation of a radically conservative Supreme Court. Rumsfeld, as noted, got his chance to display his military doctrine.

As for losers, one can say it is virtually everyone else (except perhaps for all the executives of all the privately contracted services and corporations who have done fairly well on the taxpayers’ dollars.) Among the bigger losers (again, not counting the thousands of soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have been casualties of this war):

1. Democrats, at least initially. What began as a non-partisan debate with liberals and conservatives on both sides of the issue of invasion, was masterfully made partisan by the Administration. The Democratic Party was pushed into a corner, unable to overcome the patriotic hype and jingoistic bluster.

One can say the Republicans, more recently, have been losers, too, but the loss of both houses of Congress in 2006, and potentially greater setbacks in 2008, might be laid as much to corruption, overreaching on social issues (as in the Terri Schiavo affair), and poor management of the economy, as to the debacle in Iraq.

2. Paul Wolfowitz. More than anyone else, Wolfowitz embodied the neo-conservative foundation for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. He was also the most consistent voice in the Administration for having the removal of Saddam be the basis of a democratization of Iraq. In the end, he lost out in three ways: first with having to leave the Dept. of Defense, then being pushed out of the presidency of the World Bank, and finally in the ineptness in which the post-war process has been handled.

3. The Generals and the Intelligence Agencies. Colin Powell had to endure both the rejection of his doctrine of engaging the enemy with overwhelming force (a position that was supported actively or tacitly by virtually every Army commander), and the embarrassment of a weakened and ineffective Department of State. The CIA, NSA, FBI, and the rest of intelligence establishment, in its inability to resist the insistent demand for “cooked” data, have been widely denounced as politicized and/or ineffective.

4. The U.S. Economy. The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath has already used up a half-trillion dollars in direct costs, and perhaps as much or more in related expenditures (health care, lost employment time, etc.) As large as these figures are, they represent a small percentage of the total domestic economy, yet they undoubtedly deform the American market in ways that can hardly be considered good.

The analogy might be the Vietnam War, another war of choice prosecuted with no concomitant demand for economic sacrifice on the part of Americans (some of you will remember “guns and butter.”) As the American military commitment wound down, the U.S. endured an extended period of economic pain. I have no direct knowledge of any authoritative analysis linking that war with the malaise of the 70s, but I strongly doubt that the two phenomena were purely coincidental.

5. Finally, Israel.

The Lost Seven Years

Indulge me for a moment while I quote from a letter I sent to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, in March 2003, just before the bombing started. In the previous fall, the URJ Board had voted to endorse a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, but only if certain conditions had been met. As war had become virtually inevitable, I wrote my colleague questioning what the URJ was going to do as the attack was coming and almost none of the conditions had been obtained. Near the end of the letter, I added the following:

I fear that the benefits for Israel are to accrue only if something close to the very best case scenario is achieved: the victory is quick and relatively painless, Iraqis do truly feel liberated and not invaded, the population mix of Sunni, Shiite and Kurds remains stable and cooperative, other Arab states feel constrained to suppress groups that might be bent on suicidal terror against American interests, the costs to the American economy turn out to be relatively low, and certain material benefits such as lower oil costs are realized very quickly, and the sullenness, fear and resentment felt in Europe and elsewhere over this display of American might dissipates in the face of the overall good feeling that would arise from the fall of such a tyrant.

These circumstances, not impossible but hardly assured, would free American administrative, political, economic and diplomatic resources in order to focus on providing for a stable and safe Jewish State.If less than the best-case is realized, however—excessive bloodshed, an administrative nightmare in Iraq, continued economic uncertainty, increased incidents of terrorism (whether successful or not; even failure can heighten anxiety)—and at best, the U.S. will continue to be too distracted to assist in the continued stalemate that grips the Israel-Palestine crisis.

And in something akin to worst case, a prolonged conflict and worsening economic conditions in the States, and it is not hard to imagine a beleaguered Administration playing the Israel/Jewish card by sacking Wolfowitz, Feith and Perle, and muttering about Sharon’s pressure. I repeat, is this military action specifically in the way it has been brought about, really good for Israel and American Jews?

I think we can conclude five years later that the prediction of the first paragraph clearly did not happen, the second paragraph clearly did, and the third paragraph has come uncomfortably close. From the start of the Bush Administration, the Oslo Peace Process that had defined the Israel-Palestine negotiations for the previous seven years was at an end. The process had already taken a blow from the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks among Arafat, Israeli PM Barak and Clinton to reach some resolution, and were hurt further by the violence of the ‘al-Aksa intifada’ that began at the end of September. The negotiations, however, continued between Israeli and Palestinian representatives—with American mediation—continued all the way to the day before Bush’s inauguration.

Continuation of negotiations was going to be disrupted anyway as a new Administration sorts out its own personal and diplomatic style. In the case of Bush, however, the mantra appeared to be that whatever Clinton did, they would do something else. A serious and sustained American effort, a la Oslo, was over.

This ‘benign neglect’ was only exacerbated by first, the upheaval brought about by 9/11, and then, the campaign in Iraq. American interests and focus had definitively turned from Israel-Palestine, which for decades had been both the emotional and geographic center of tumult in the Middle East, to a nation that was on edge.

It certainly appeared that Bush was giving Ariel Sharon (who succeeded Barak only three weeks after Bush succeeded Clinton) a relatively free hand in which to deal with the spate of violence—particularly suicide bombings—that plagued the Jewish State in 2001 and 2002. And thus, many observers concluded that Bush was more “pro-Israel” than either of his two predecessors (that is, more pro-Israel than his own father!) It was equally true that the White House was also abandoning any influence it might have brought to bear on the Palestinian Authority, making them considerably weaker in any effort to restrain the more radical and nihilistic elements. At the same time, it was abandoning Sharon, leaving him with the extremely difficult task of stopping terror violence against Israeli citizens while avoiding undue oppression that could only make the situation worse. Sharon was not up to the task, although he handled the near impossible circumstances much better than I expected.

In getting bogged down in Iraq, the Administration did not play the Israel/Jewish card, but the card has been played! From the start, some opponents of Iraq adventure have suggested that the real impetus behind the invasion was Israel. The continued identification of the White House Iraq policy with neo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives with certain prominent Jews was enough to place the Jewish community in the center of the debate.

In the subsequent years, with the U.S. stuck in Iraq, and the circumstances for Palestinians having become increasingly frayed, there have been signs of growing frustration among prominent mainstream institutions with both Israel and the American Jewish community. The Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist Churches have all seriously contemplated a divestment policy aimed at punishing Israel for its reputed oppression of Palestinians. Former President Carter wrote a book that foolishly and intemperately accused Israelis of engaging in apartheid. Finally, two well respected political science scholars, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, produced an academically sloppy and superficial work attempting to detail how an Israel Lobby was strangling U.S. policy in the Middle East.

No, the Bush Administration has never gone as far as actively fostering the notion that the fix we are in in Iraq can be laid at the feet of Israel and Jews. In a mixture of anger and incredulity over the mess—both the violence in Iraq and the missed opportunities in Israel/Palestine—some otherwise thoughtful individuals have made the spurious connections for them.

Nicht Gornicht

I hope you can recognize that my remarks are not partisan. Either a President Al Gore or a President John McCain (if the Republican primaries in 2000 played out differently) might have had to make military decisions regarding Iraq, and undoubtedly would have handled the situation much better. Rather than being partisan, my remarks are ad hominem. The boondoggle that is Iraq can be laid squarely at the feet of George W. Bush.

There is both bad news and good news in this conclusion. The bad news is the plethora of bad news that has occurred regarding Iraq, the U.S. economy, the Middle East in general, and the hundreds of thousands lost and shattered lives, particularly since “Mission Accomplished.” The good news is that in the big picture of international relations, it is really nothing (nicht gornicht). However, low esteem for the United States might have fallen throughout the world, no nation dropped or degraded its formal relations with America. Even after six years of mostly observing a deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories, the Administration could summon Arab leadership—including Saudi Arabia and Syria—for a conference intended to restore negotiations toward two states.

The last five-to-seven years have been like a bad dream. On January 20, 2009, regardless of who is sworn in as the next President, it is realistic to believe that we can begin waking up.