The Question They Should Have Asked

Many of those who supported the invasion of Iraq, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute who made the statement today on Public Radio’s Radio Times, say it was a ‘close call.’ Given the information they were provided, the argument goes, it appeared that something did have to be done about Saddam Hussein. After all, he had committed “genocide” and had used chemical weapons against his own people—and had certainly once embarked on a nuclear program.

Such people further excuse themselves, as O’Hanlon does, by saying that the invasion wasn’t “wrong” anyway—it was the aftermath. If, they say, we had gone in strong rather than on the cheap, we wouldn’t be in the situation we face today.

All of these people have weaseled out of responsibility—not that many of them had any in the first place—by deflecting attention from the clear and simple fact that it was no ‘close call’ in determining to support or oppose the invasion. It was only a close call (if then) if one did not ask one significant question:

“What do we do if we fail?”

Even now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates states that ‘failure is not an option.’ Like O’Hanlon and the other pundits now trying to excuse themselves, like George Bush, like most of those who supported this travesty of a war, Gates refuses to consider that we could lose—not to mention that we have lost.

Any good strategist has a plan in case of failure—or has considered, at least, what the consequences of failure might be. The possibility of failure, certainly, has to be considered in making the initial decision. Eisenhower, for example, was so aware of the possibility of failure on D-Day that he even wrote out a statement taking responsibility for the failure that, of course, did not happen. The planning for what to do if things did not work out only stopped once the Normandy landing was a success.

“We cannot lose, so why think about what might happen then?” “Thinking of failure is only for those who will fail.” “We are too good and too strong to fail, so don’t have to consider that.” These are the lines of thinking that the supporters of the war, for the most part, followed.

Consequences. These have to be imagined any time a decision to go to war is made. Negative consequences, too. And the consequences of failure. The only things the supporters of the war looked at were the possible positive consequences. They never bothered to think about what might happen if a strong and independent Iraqi government weren’t quickly established.

They should have.

Those of us who opposed the war didn’t oppose it because we supported Saddam (no matter how much the Bush administration and its toadies tried to cast us in that light). No. We opposed it on a number of grounds. Many of us were appalled by the idea of a pre-emptive strike against a power that clearly posed no threat (this was no ‘close call,’ O’Hanlon—anyone with eyes wide open enough to see the operational methodology of the Bush White House knew to discount information from it and to look to other sources, all of which showed that Saddam posed no threat to the US), but just as many of us were looking at possible consequences—including the consequences of defeat.

There were simple facts about Iraq that should have made the negative consequences of failure (even if a remote possibility) so dire that they trumped any possible positive consequences (no matter how likely) of success. The excuse of having been lied to about Saddam’s capabilities does not change the simple fact that anyone with any sense, looking at all the possible outcomes of the war, would have seen (and many did) that this war just was not worth the cost. Success wouldn’t really get us much; failure could be disastrous.

What are those simple facts?

First, Iraq has no real integrity as a nation. Saddam ruled through one ethnic/religious group, keeping two others in thrall. This was clear to everyone: his actions against the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a in the south could not be denied. An invasion, therefore, would be seen by many in these two groups as an opening for establishing their dominance—if not of the country as a whole, at least of their areas within. Second, Iraq is not simply an Arab nation among other Arab nations, or an Islamic state amongst others. Ethnically, Iraq borders four other Arab nations, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It also borders Turkey and Iran, both states with their own distinct ethnic backgrounds (but both with Kurdish minorities—minorities related to the Kurds in Iraq). In religious terms, Iraq, split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, is bordered by Sunni-dominated Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Kuwait—and Turkey, where the government is secular but Sunnis make up the bulk of the population. Iran, though not Arab, certainly is Shi’a—and keeps a somewhat protective eye on its religious brethren, just as Saudi Arabia and the others do on the Sunnis. If there were not a strong central government in Iraq, these interested neighbors would certainly and quickly begin to meddle in Iraqi affairs. They would not feel it safe to do otherwise (Turkey, for example, has long feared the idea of a Kurdish state that could provide support for its own Kurdish separatists). Third, there was no real ‘government in exile’ that could be called in to replace Saddam’s regime. All that was available were a smattering of rich and exiled Iraqis, few of whom had any base of support inside the country. The likelihood, then, of a strong central Iraqi government that could exist on its own was remote from the start.

Fourth, if the US failed to set up a strong government in Iraq quickly, there would be a real power vacuum at the center of an unstable region. Jockeying to fill that vacuum by all the surrounding powers (not to mention other interested parties—interested because of oil or, like Israel and the US, because of problems with the Arab population of the region) could lead to unintended consequences of all sorts—like providing a new base for Al-Qaeda, a replacement for the loss in Afghanistan.

One did not even need to know all of this (though it was quite clear) to recognize that invading Iraq was a bad idea. Failure would be a disaster—and is.

But what about success? Would that have been any better? What success could their really be?

Democracy? That was a pipe-dream at best. Only a fool could really have believed that a democracy of any sort could succeed in Iraq through American imposition. Another strongman? Whoever it would be (if such a person existed), that person would have merely taken us back to the situation of the 1980s, when Iraq (and Saddam) was a US ally, but not a stable one, or one that could be trusted for even the short term—unless a huge US force remained in Iraq (which would make the strongman a puppet anyway, and a strongman in name only).

No. For anyone looking honestly and clearly at the Middle East in 2002 and early 2003, there was no ‘close call’ in deciding whether or not to support an invasion. It was a bad idea. Clearly a bad idea.

It amazes me that those, especially the pundits, who so heartily supported the war have a shred of credibility today—that they have the nerve to justify themselves and continue to make a living as commentators.

Their intellectual bankruptcy (not to mention the moral and ethical kind) should be clear to all. We should turn our national back on them.

Oh, and by the way: have you noticed that these are the same people, for the most part, now advocating a “surge”?

Think they have asked, “What do we do if it fails?”

I doubt it.

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