Matthew Yglesias provides links to a debate that might blossom as to the morality of the Administration’s various misrepresentations viz. the war in Iraq. For many on the left, the whole WMD issue is seeming like more and more of a giant lie that was foisted on the American public in order to drum up support for the war; for some on the right, it simply doesn’t matter if the claims regarding WMDs were factually true at all, because that was never the “real reason” for the war in the first place. This response strikes me as woefully inadequate.
First of all, it seems to me to boil down to “It’s OK that the Administration lied about WMDs, because that entire rationale was basically one giant lie anyway.” If I am to be assuaged by the fact that the lies were all just misdirection anyway, then I’m sorry to report that I am not assuaged at all. Rather the reverse, I’m afraid, because that means that the Administration decided to lie to me on two grounds, not just one: Not only did they trumpet a rationale for war that was itself not accurate, they didn’t even portray what (we are told) is the actual rationale. Basically, SDB tells us, it boils down to salesmanship. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair decided that they couldn’t sell a war on Iraq as an opening salvo in a long-term strategy designed to restructure the entire Islamo-Arabic world, so we got an amalgam of humanitarian concerns and half-baked WMD stuff. Now, I’m not sure I buy the whole “They didn’t say this because they knew they couldn’t sell it” defense, because quite frankly that rationale has been out there for some time, and not just by armchair generals but by actual Administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz. It’s not like it was a carefully-concealed secret. But even then, I have other reasons for being troubled by what I now call the “Misdirection Rationale”.
First, it undermines the humanitarian argument that the pro-war factions have been flogging. I’ve found it problematic that Saddam’s horrible regime has been at the top of the list, where other horrible regimes around the globe are barely on the radar screen at all; surely, to say that we were obliged on humanitarian grounds to depose Saddam Hussein carries with it an implication that we’re also obliged to do something about the other brutal dictators who abound. It speaks volumes that we’re not doing so, and it leads me to wondering: if Saddam Hussein had come to power in, say, Tunisia and run precisely as brutal a regime there as he actually did in Iraq, and all other things were equal, would we have gone into Tunisia instead of Iraq? Probably not, given that with this strategy of confronting the dangers of the Islamo-Arabic world, we needed a good beachhead, and for various strategic reasons, Iraq was apparently to be that beachhead. Now, if that strategy actually is what we are doing, then Iraq makes sense as a beachhead, in pretty much the same way that Normandy made sense as a beachhead for the big Allied invasion of Nazi-overrun Europe in 1944. But then you lose, in large part, the whole moral claim to dealing with this particular regime. The moral justification becomes an a posteriori justification, used more to bludgeon liberals (“How could you oppose our ending of this?”) than a case for action in the first place.
Secondly, concealing the “real” rationale for war beneath a veneer of more emotionally-laden stuff seems to me a pretty cynical approach. It says, “For heaven’s sake, we can’t possibly tell the people what we’re actually doing. We need something big! Something that will grab them! Something that will scare the crap right out of them!” So we were told that Saddam Hussein’s regime had connections with Al Qaeda; it was strongly implied that Saddam was on the verge of making a nuclear bomb; and all the rest of it. It wasn’t a case of persuasion; it was a case of selling, which is not the same thing. It was like the beer commercials that make it sound like a party will erupt in your own backyard, complete with scantily-clad women, if only you’d drink Coors Light instead of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The whole thing smacks of distrust — of the American people, of the world, of their own case and their ability to argue for it.
And finally, the “Misdirection Rationale” stikes me as faulty because the Administration does not appear, quite frankly, to have done much planning for the steps after the initial war. No clamp-down or issuing of curfews, no anticipation of looting, the now-dawning realization that our armed forces might be lacking in sufficient manpower to pull it off. We’re in a post-war environment right now where the war doesn’t so much seem to be “post”, when we’re dependent on some guy walking in off the street to tell us where the bad guys are hiding, et cetera. I agree with SDB that we’re in Iraq to stay, but I’d be more confident of the end result if our planning to this point had reflected that from the beginning.
So that’s my current thinking on this subject.
(I can only hope that when I get a job or start doing something actually productive, I’ll be able to channel my thoughts into something other than politics. The past week or so notwithstanding, I’m really not trying to morph into a political blog here.)
UPDATE: Kevin Drum weighs in on this topic today (and also here), and I think he’s pretty much got the right of it. He concentrates, quite rightly, on the question of just why the President won’t say what our real reason for war is. War is a time for leadership, not salesmanship. I commented on this aspect a couple of months ago, as well.