Jeb Bush and the return of the great Iraq War debate
Americans still haven't learned the right lessons from Iraq. Bush's campaign gives us that chance.
Last February I predicted that Jeb Bush would run for and win the GOP nomination in 2016. Let's just say that nothing has happened over the past year to convince me I was wrong.
Note, though, that I didn't say Bush would win the general election — presumably against Hillary Clinton. That's because he faces a unique dilemma that may well prove impossible to finesse.
That dilemma, of course, is the Iraq War.
It remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.
I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he'll try to have it both ways by asserting he's his "own man" while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother's old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)
What seems certain is that with Jeb running, we're bound to see yet another round of accusations and recriminations over the Iraq War and its legacy. Which won't actually be such a bad thing, since there's distressingly little sign that either party has learned the right lessons from the travesty of the war. With the Obama administration seemingly on the brink of launching the Global War on Terror 2.0, that belated reckoning can't come soon enough.
Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.
This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.
The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That's an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)
Almost no one denied the premise of the dispute, which was that Hussein was hiding weapons. It's understandable that the debate ever since has focused on the error of that universally accepted premise — Bush lied! No he didn't! — but it keeps us from confronting the more fundamental issue of why the leadership of both parties and major players in the media became convinced on the basis of that faulty intelligence that war was a good idea.
Certainly part of it was fear. I've written before about how the spectacular events of Sept. 11, 2001, warped many people's thinking (including my own) in the months following the attacks. But that, too, isn't the core of the issue, since fear could have inspired a range of different policies.
The question is: Why did our fear lead the War on Terror, which began quite sensibly as a war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to evolve within 18 months into a war on a second nation-state that no one seriously believed played a significant role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon?
And the answer, I think, is that we prefer to wage war against countries. We get them. They make sense. Invade, take territory, depose the bad guy, occupy for a time, then withdraw and claim victory — the end. This fits with classical international relations theory, which tells us that wars take place between or among states — the global actors with the greatest power to pursue interests and inflict harm. It also fit the Cold War, in which two superpowers (meaning: two very strong states) battled each other mainly through allies and proxies that were also states.
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.
That's what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn't be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.
But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn't produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war's governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.
And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!
Except that the Iraq War wasn't just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)
Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.
And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor's mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's government in Libya. This time it wasn't fear that tempted a president to act. Obama's a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.
And it worked. Until it didn't.
Just like in Baghdad.
Who could possibly mourn the passing of the sadistic loon Gaddafi? He deserved his fate, just like Hussein. But that doesn't mean our policy in Libya was smart. Life under Gaddafi, especially in the months leading up to our intervention, was horrible. But at least there were elements of a functional government and civil society. Now? It's a Hobbesian state of war. This has been our gift to the Libyan people and the region: yet another failed state, yet another front in Islamism's effort to burn civilization to the ground.
When will America learn that tyrannical states aren't the only monsters in the world — and that sometimes slaying one kind of monster creates an ideal breeding ground for a new one that's even worse? We need to stop fighting our current war (the War on Terror) using tactics better suited to the last one (the Cold War).
Only then will a president truly be able to say he avoided doing "stupid sh*t."