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Bush's Folly

If LRC has made anything clear, it is that the Iraq War is tragic, wicked, and unjustifiable, but the fact is that it is also a failure in terms of attaining the main national security goal of the U.S. Not only that, this failure was entirely predictable before the war began. In short, starting the Iraq War was a senseless and foolish act – folly – from the point of view of enhancing the security of the U.S., a Bay of Pigs writ large. This conclusion is not, I will argue, an exercise in Monday morning quarterbacking.

The Folly of Nation-Building

If the powers-that-be had restricted themselves to only American experience and recent experience at that, they would have known that a major involvement of American forces to engage in nation-building (or spreading democracy) would be far from a trivial exercise to be accomplished by incredibly simple-minded shock and awe or any grand display of July 4th killing fireworks. The Viet Cong and the rickety succession of South Vietnamese administrations taught that lesson.

Someday a neoconservative or a high Administration official may confess as did Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1995 concerning the Vietnam War: "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong." In the same vein, "When McNamara left office in 1968, he told reporters that his principal regret was his recommendation to Kennedy to proceed with the Bay of Pigs operation, something that u2018could have been recognized as an error at the time.'" This defines folly.

Our officials would have known that even minor involvements as in Somalia and Haiti failed to play out as planned. They would have known that the Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan was a failure, and that the U.S. incursion therein was still far from successful in terminating Al-Qaeda or even creating the mythical stable government friendly to that of the U.S.

Or if they had considered the American intervention in Lebanon, they would easily have found the following evaluation by their own military of a situation much like that of Iraq. Of the involvement in Lebanon in 1982–1983, Lieutenant Commander Westra states:

"American policy was formulated without adequate consideration of the complexity of the Lebanese conflict or its political and religious antecedents. Additionally, our policy was pursued from a purely American perspective without consideration of the goals and motivations of numerous factions involved in the fighting. As a consequence of these policy shortcomings, American military forces were mistakenly committed as a first resort before all diplomatic and other means had been exhausted."

"The key problem of our involvement in Lebanon was that American military forces were mistakenly committed in order to solve a complex set of political problems that had no military solution. By submitting future regional conflicts to a “Lebanon Test,” policymakers will have an in-depth model delineating the multitude of considerations and pitfalls affecting policy formulation and the use of military force to secure the objectives of policy in regional conflicts."

If many in the military knew better, wouldn't this information reach the President? Mightn't it even seep out to the bloodthirsty editorial writers and thence to the gung-ho public?

And if the President or any of his estimable advisors had spent 15 minutes or so studying the experiences of other nations in colonial wars of intervention or comparable domestic interferences involving whole societies, wouldn't they have discovered that the world history of many states and empires is strewn with abundant foreign policy (and domestic) failures, so many that they are virtually the norm?

Prohibition was a failure. The War on Drugs was and is a failure. The War on Poverty was a failure. Both Napoleon's and Hitler's invasions of Russia were failures. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars over the course of 80 years were failures. The Aceh War fought by the Netherlands in today's Indonesia over a 40-year period was a failure. These man-made disasters routinely drain the attacker and undermine his spirit, and they often last a very long time.

The Folly of Preemption

The President's West Point speech in June, 2002 outlined his preemption strategy.

"Deterrence – the promise of massive retaliation against nations – means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. (Applause.) In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act. (Applause.)

Our security will require the best intelligence, to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories."

Can a President e-mail the CIA or FBI for a personality profile of dictators who possess weapons of mass destruction (however they are defined) in order to determine scientifically (unbiasedly) who is or is not unbalanced ? Can this be done at a distance, without observing or testing the dictator directly? Does the medical profession accept "unbalanced" as a medical diagnostic category? Should a preemptive military strategy be based on a judgment about who is or is not balanced? If all of the answers to these questions are "Yes," which they most certainly are not, should a strategy then be based on the notion that this dictator "can" use the weapon or "can" give them to an ally, somehow determined to be "terrorist"? Is shooting first and asking questions later lawful or prudent?

In plain words, what is the President telling us? Our greatest weapons, our atomic deterrents, are of no use to us. Hidden in the dark are enemies we cannot apprehend. We cannot contain powerfully mad enemies who act in secrecy. So we will strike out, we will create a battle, identify an enemy. Then we will feel good, we will feel safe. Kill the bastards! (Applause.)

These high-toned words of President Bush reflect frustration and fear, the instinct to fight and kill, emotionalism disguised as statesmanship. However, they add up to utterly senseless foreign policy.

The speech next girds us and the military to "confront the worst threats before they emerge." This means that the U.S. will eliminate what it perceives to be a threat that could enter the set of "worst threats" before it matures into a "worst threat" member. Apparently, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction fall into this category since they were so minor that they were never used by Iraq or found. Be that as it may, this doctrine appears to be the product of minds with an excess of confidence in themselves plus an excess of self-righteousness, who proclaim their ability to determine threats before they become threats, who declare the right to interfere with them militarily and summarily, without talk, without negotiation, without exploring other avenues of threat reduction. Has diplomacy been ruled out or cast aside as a means to achieve national security?

What does the U.S. stand to gain by announcing such a policy? Here the U.S. is threatening retaliatory action upon threats that it perceives. This is basically telling other nations that the U.S. retains the option of preventing any nation it designates as an enemy from developing a variety of weapons and weapons delivery systems. It is difficult to imagine how the U.S. can enforce such a threat or policy without turning itself into an aggressor and alienating the rest of the world, because of the subjective factors involved and the intrusions on the sovereignty of other nations. If other nations adopt such a policy, then virtually any attack on any nation is justifiable, or even attacks on internal parties designated as threats or potential threats.

At a most basic level, the preemption policy is folly because it overlooks the basic moral thought patterns of human beings. If Iraq had attacked another country, then a war against it would be understood and supported widely. On the other hand, if the U.S. attacked Iraq without such a clear provocation, then it would supply a pretext for all sorts of retaliatory measures against the U.S. The U.S. would foster terrorists who would feel justified in their acts. In addition, the rest of the world would not support the U.S. and its influence would wane.

The Folly of Mis-Identifying the Enemy

The main national security goal of the U.S. was stated as follows in September, 2002: "Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government."

This statement is unobjectionable, although in fact the U.S. Constitution places the establishment of justice and insuring domestic tranquility ahead of providing "for the common defence."

The Iraq War is the consequence of taking this mission into strategy via the preemption policy:

"Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination. The United States will not allow these efforts to succeed…And, as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed. We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. So we must be prepared to defeat our enemies' plans, using the best intelligence and proceeding with deliberation."

Obviously, the first step is to identify an enemy correctly. Who is the enemy? How is an enemy to be identified? This is a central issue. One of the problems with our political system is that the President identifies the enemy.

Was Iraq the enemy? During an interview on August 10, 2002, the President said it was and explained why.

Q "Mr. President, yesterday in an interview I guess with Scott, you described Iraq as the enemy."

THE PRESIDENT: "I described them as the axis of evil once. I described them as an enemy until proven otherwise. They obviously, you know, desire weapons of mass destruction. I presume that he still views us as an enemy. I have constantly said that we owe it to our children and our children’s children to free the world from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who hate freedom. This is a man who has poisoned his own people, I mean he’s had a history of tyranny."

An enemy is one whom the President describes as an enemy, for reasons he gives shortly. To be removed from the enemies list, there exists some mysterious process of proof to the contrary, but who carries out this proof or how it is done are unknown.

Iraq is an enemy because it has a desire for weapons of mass destruction, even if it does not possess them. The small threat that could grow into a "worst threat" is a desire. The President arrogates to the U.S. the option to brand any group or nation an enemy and then attack them, on the basis of a subjective determination by the U.S. that they desire weaponry. There could not exist a much more flimsy basis for aggression than this. The so-called leader of the free world has here abandoned any moral standing to be that leader.

An enemy is one who "still views us as an enemy," not even actually but presumably, according to the President. In other words, if I think that you think I am an enemy, then I am entitled to attack you.

Finally, and the President here sounds like he really means it, we have a duty to rid the world of tyrants who hate freedom and possess weapons of mass destruction. This statement is overkill since actual possession is not necessary to justify the attack. However, it appears that the enemy is also one who hates freedom. And how does one determine that? Probably if the country fails to hold an election according to the rules that the U.S. prefers, but not if it forces its citizens into Social Security and Medicare. Presumably, if President Bush had been governing in 1949, the U.S. would surely have attacked the Soviet Union, but 20 or more other countries may have qualified, many under the U.S. aegis.

On October 7, 2002, in a major prepared address to the nation, President Bush made his detailed case for Iraq being an enemy.

In this speech, he led off by referring to Iraq as a "grave threat." How so? From Iraq's "history of aggression" and "its drive toward an arsenal of terror." However, the U.S. was non-neutral during the Iraq-Iran War, and its inept diplomacy played a role in catalyzing the Iraq-Kuwait War. In addition, whether Iraq's weapons arsenal was intended to be used for defense, aggressive war, suppression, or terror was hardly known to the President. Apparently, the U.S. arsenal is never to be regarded as an instrument of terror no matter what its deadly impact because of the honorable intentions of its wielders.

U.S. foreign policy at this moment seems to have abandoned sober consideration and entered a shadowy world of its own, critically dependent on perceptions of threats before they become threats, subjective assessments of states of mind and intentions, and the emotional gratification of doing something, anything, to overcome frustration and fear. Is this the foreign policy of a "feel-good" generation?

The President went on to his well-known remarks about Iraq's possession of "chemical and biological weapons," claims we now know not to be true. We also now know that the Administration knew these claims were false. Here was both a false rationale and a lie (one of many) told to the American people.

Folly comes in many guises. An attack on Saddam Hussein, being something of a folk hero, by a power like the U.S. whose designs could easily be interpreted as imperialistic, would almost surely drive a wedge between the U.S. and Islamic nations, alienating the man on the street. The enhancement of Iran's position would be a natural consequence – but that would not deter a White House confident of moving from neoconservative victory to victory.

Was Iraq an enemy, a threat to the national security of the U.S.? Most definitely it was not, all assertions and propaganda to the contrary.

In sum, President Bush mis-identified the enemy. He put into play a strategy of nation-building that would almost certainly fail. He did this on the basis of an unethical doctrine of preemptive war that can only be applied in a highly subjective way. Thus, from the point of view of national security, his own goal, his decisions were folly, Bush's folly.

General Omar Bradley said of General MacArthur's strategy of invading China, which fortunately was never implemented, that it "would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." Regrettably, either no Omar Bradley stood beside President Bush or he chose not to listen if there was one.

Why Bush's Folly Occurred

It will probably be a long time before we know how and why Bush's Folly occurred. At the moment, I offer the following thoughts and perspective.

President Bush is a cunning man, in my opinion. He knew that the 9/11 attacks had changed American attitudes or at least opened them up to change. On 9/20, the President seized the initiative to shape the public's conceptions and interpretations of 9/11. He supplied a story that placed the events of 9/11 in a perspective of his own making. In his speech, the President, among other things, declared a very broad war on terror, presented the Taliban with an ultimatum, as a prelude to war, and outlined an agenda related to the war on terror. These are the acts of a man who knew enough to latch on to an historical moment and use it to amplify 9/11 into a cause of war.

If many Americans at that critical moment displayed the psychological characteristics of a crowd, then President Bush used that moment highly effectively to advance his agenda. Even those who support democracy as a form of government should understand that this process does not follow the hallowed democratic script. Massive power lodged in the Presidency, a one-sided opportunity to be the focal point of a crisis, the first mover in providing doctrine and leadership, a crowd prepared to receive direction – all of these short circuit what is supposed to occur in a democracy, namely, open debate and exchange of information leading to a public consensus and then action. This democracy in this instance as in many others replicates a sort of mob rule, when its leader cleverly coordinates a fearful crowd, inciting them to support his actions.

Although Bush's Iraq War is folly, it was quite clear at the time when Iraq was attacked that our leadership could never have taken seriously the notion that Iraq had missiles and atom bombs ready to fly, that it was preparing a war against America. This notion is so far-fetched that we must wonder how it could ever have been promulgated to the American people much less believed. After all, whatever puny power that Iraq possessed had already been greatly reduced by previous wars with Iran and the U.N. coalition; and for a decade, the major powers had overflown and inspected the country as well as embargoed it without mercy. We did not need a Downing Street memo to have understood in 2002 that the U.S. already had determined to attack Iraq regardless of pretext or legal justification, both from public statements and by actions to move military forces to the Middle East.

Why then did the President go ahead with this war? Was it to gain political capital, as some have suggested? This is plausible, but there are other possibilities.

James Ostrowski gives us a sturdy foundation for understanding war-making by democracies. He emphasizes that wars are made purposefully to achieve particular ends of particular people and groups of people. Wars, he says, occur to achieve one or more of the following goals for their proponents:

  1. Domestic political goals, such as a war serving as a distraction from domestic troubles or a temporary remedy for them.
  2. Advancement of a political agenda under the war's cover, such as control over industry or extension of police state methods.
  3. Service to special interest groups that benefit from the action, such as defense, construction, and oil industries.
  4. Advancement of messianic goals, such as spreading freedom and democracy, or making the world safe for democracy.
  5. Advancement of imperialistic power or rule to a new region.

To this list, I add ends that public-minded politicians and statesmen might raise:

  1. Advancement of geopolitical goals such as securing a warm water port or securing an oil supply.
  2. Defense of life, liberty and property.
  3. Fulfillment of a treaty or similar obligation with an aim such as collective security.

No matter which of these ideas or others motivated the President, this war shows clear error, with the sought after national security producing the opposite result, and weakening the U.S. morally, spiritually, politically, militarily, socially and economically. Bush's War is folly for countless innocent people who have been killed and wounded, it is folly for us, and it is turning out to be folly for him.

Maybe a degree of success in Afghanistan emboldened our leaders. Maybe the foolish mantra of sole superpower, that overemphasizes the military and overlooks the moral, went to their heads. Maybe the idea of a New World Order captured their fancy. Whatever transpired behind closed doors, President Bush (and others) evidently thought that this war would be easy and result in many benefits. They should have known better. They stupidly underestimated the potential risks and losses. They overconfidently peered into the future and saw many gains within reach and few losses. They miscalculated. Then again, perhaps we will learn that they failed to calculate at all. Perhaps they just threw the dice.

The Remedy

Whatever historians uncover, the important lesson is that the Iraq War joins a long list of other State-sponsored misadventures. State leaders do brainless things because, having a monopoly on legal violence, their accountability for their acts is relatively low, because they do not bear the full costs of their acts, because the information and intelligence systems within States are never up to par as they too involve poor accountability, and because the system is geared to raising leaders with harmful characteristics to the top. When leaders possess excessive power, as in the case of the Presidency, the potential damage is multiplied.

Societies require order, and it can be given by a range of methods, from self-government to despotism. Our country has over and over again accepted the paranoid proposition that order requires conquest or control, temporary or permanent – of the South, of the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific, of the Pacific Ocean, of Mideast oil, of Iran, of South Korea, of Vietnam, of the Philippines, etc. Now the thought is that Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, and who knows how many other places, are military fair game because some ill-defined thing called our "national security" is at stake. Folly, folly, and more folly, bringing increasing disorder, insecurity, and totalitarianism. Will the American people please come to its senses? Let us make self-government our political aim.

The helpful comments of Dorothy Gruber-Rozeff are gratefully appreciated.

July 13, 2005