Our Inscrutable Iraq Policy: Why We Did It, What To Do Now, and What Happens Next

The following is the text of a talk originally given in November 2004 for the University of Virginia, Charlottesville at a public event sponsored by the UVA Students for Individual Liberty. Versions were also presented at public events sponsored by Libertarians at Virginia Tech (September 2005) and the Appalachian School of Law (October 2005).

Hello and thank you. I want to talk tonight about three things. First, it is important that we understand why we are in Iraq. Secondly, what should we do now? And lastly, I want to explore how American foreign policy might be conducted in the future to prevent disasters of the kind we are experiencing in Iraq.


  • A little about me and my perspective on the war on Iraq
    • What the Pentagon senior civilian staff and the President were saying about Iraq did not match the intelligence I’d been looking at regularly for over four years. Furthermore, it did not pass the logic test.
    • I moved my retirement date up a few months and just after I retired, in July 2003, Knight-Ridder newspapers published an op-ed where I discussed the functional isolation of the policy-makers, their cross-agency cliques of likeminded ideologues, and the groupthink that afflicted them in the rush to war.
      • I realize today that I was far too kind — improved process in the decision making for the war in Iraq would have saved few lives. What we have here is a war designed in fact to take lives, to bring America to a new place where we are irrevocably physically, financially and emotionally invested in the Middle East — not just outsiders interested in peace or oil. It may be our first war of empire in over a hundred years.
  • There are two parts to the story of the why — why we were TOLD we went to war, and why we ARE ACTUALLY AT WAR in Iraq.

  • Why did we invade and occupy Iraq? We were told that:
    • Iraq was strong and dangerous. Sanctions were not working, and Saddam Hussein was not in compliance with the UN disarmament regime.
    • Iraq was working on a viable chemical, biological and nuclear program, had many of these weapons already, and was also working with terrorists who targeted and would target the United States.
    • It was suggested repeatedly in Presidential and Vice Presidential speeches, in statements by the Secretary of Defense and other administration mouthpieces that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9-11 attacks on the United States.
    • In the second half of 2002, a total of 27 different reasons were given by the administration or by Congresspersons as to why we needed to go into Iraq as soon as possible. I know this because a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote her senior honors thesis entitled "Uncovering the Rationales for the War on Iraq: The Words of the Bush Administration, Congress and the Media from September 12, 2001, to October 11, 2002." Devon Largio did a detailed analysis identifying 23 different reasons put forth by the administration, and 4 more put forth by various congressmen in the run up to war.
    • That’s a lot of reasons. In the infamous words of Paul Wolfowitz, "WMD became the reason upon which we could all bureaucratically agree."

  • Now, many people in this country and around the world knew that a lot of the reasons put forth were invalid, not true, or to be generous, were the result of a narrow political interpretation of a small and known to be uncertain data set.

    • People in America, in the Pentagon, at CIA and the State department knew much of the factual status of Iraq, including that:
      • Iraq was in a weakened military state, with no air force, or navy and not much of an Army, in part due to the destruction of the first Gulf War, a dozen years of sanctions and being bombed by the US and the UK since 1991.
      • Iraq had accounted for over 96% of all suspected WMDs — the 4% was a matter of debate, was it a mis-estimation, destroyed or degraded but missing the paperwork, or did it still exist in a viable form?
      • Iraq last sought material for his nuclear program in the late 1980s, and under sanctions and US enforcement of the no fly zones, had made no observed progress in his nuclear program, and did not seem to be even trying to.
      • Iraq had no relationship with al Qaeda, but in fact they were competitors and adversaries on governing and religious issues. Two thing angered Osama bin Laden — US forces in Saudi Arabia, and a godless Ba-ath dictatorship in Iraq.
      • Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11
      • Many people knew that Saddam Hussein had not been associated with a foiled attempt on the life of former President George H. W. Bush, in 1993 when he and other Bush family members and friends were visiting Kuwait. President Clinton sent missiles into Baghdad in retaliation shortly thereafter, although at the time and more so today, this purported 1993 attempt foiled by the Kuwaitis, did not emanate from Iraq.

  • But we did invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein, destroy the Ba-ath Party power structure and with it the functional infrastructure of Iraq’s command economy, and we are occupying the country to this day. Over 1100 1100, 1500, over 2000 American servicepeople have died in Iraq, over 7000, 15,000, 25,000 have been seriously injured, and almost 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 have returned home for less serious physical injuries or mental or stress reactions. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and millions of Iraqis are out of work, nearly three years after their so-called liberation. Our military and commercial contractors are "doing" security. We have handpicked and sponsored the "political leadership," we manage the energy sector among other sectors, and we make the rules in Iraq. Why did we do this, and why did we do it in 2003? There are several real reasons.

    • One reason has to do with enhancing our military-basing posture in the region. We had been very dissatisfied with our relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly the restrictions on our basing. There was dissatisfaction from the people of Saudi Arabia, and thus the troubled monarchy. So we were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter u2014 to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important u2014 that is, if you hold that is America’s role in the world. Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us in.
    • A major reason for the invasion, and the urgency of it, is that sanctions and containment had worked, and over the years, almost too well. They had become counterproductive. Many companies around the world were preparing to do business with Iraq in anticipation of a lifting of sanctions. But the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing northern and southern Iraq since 1991. So it was very unlikely that we would be in any kind of position to gain significant contracts in any post-sanctions Iraq. And those sanctions were going to be lifted soon, Saddam would still be in place, and we would get no financial benefit. Some of you may have read Naomi Klein’s Harpers article, published in September 2003, called "Baghdad Year Zero." She makes a compelling case for the convergence of business interests and a kind of neoconservative free market ideology — and that the invasion and occupation was a clean slate transformation of a command economy into a free trade utopia. Neoconservative ideology does not embrace free trade in the sense that libertarians or Adam Smith embrace it, but instead prefers significant state involvement and leans towards a social democratic model of domestic governing. However, Klein’s article will be eye-opening for those of you who still think that we went in for the reasons stated by the administration.
    • Another reason is a uniquely American rationale, and it relates to our currency, and our debt situation. Saddam Hussein decided in November 2000 to sell his Food for Oil program oil sales in euros. The oil sales permitted in that program aren’t very much. But when the sanctions would be lifted, the sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been moving from the dollar to the euro. The U.S. dollar is in a sensitive period because we are a bigtime debtor nation now. Our currency is still popular, but it’s not backed up like it used to be. If oil, a very solid commodity, is traded on the euro, that could cause massive shifts in confidence in trading on the dollar. A recent article by Robert Freeman called "The Bush Budget Deficit Death Spiral" has this to say:

This run-up in debt represents the most rapid, predatory looting of public wealth in the history of the world. The interest costs alone will consume the government and, soon, the entire economy. In fiscal 2004, interest costs came to $321 billion against a deficit of $415 billion. So three quarters of all the current year borrowing is spent paying interest on past borrowing. This is the most immediate symptom of the deficit death spiral.

Freeman also quotes Herbert Stein, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Richard Nixon was fond of saying, "Things that can’t go on forever, don’t."

  • In any case, the first executive order regarding Iraq that Bush signed in May [2003] switched trading on Iraq’s oil back to the dollar.
  • There are other reasons, beyond bases, contracts, and stability of the dollar during bad times. A big one is the general idea embraced by the neoconservative ideologues in the administration that the best thing we can do for Israel’s security is to be there. It is not enough to send several billions in economic and military aid each year, and it is not enough to veto UN resolutions that are unfavorable to Israel. It is not enough to have bases in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab monarchies and oligarchies. Some of these American friends are not friends of Israel, and it makes taking diplomatic actions against them more difficult. In the view of many neoconservatives, America needs to be there, militarily and economically in the region, working closely with Israel, our lone democratic ally and one that has the human intelligence capability on the ground that we have never had, and never will have.
  • You may notice that building civil society, fostering democracy, and helping improve a bad humanitarian situation are not the reasons we went to Iraq, or why we are staying. We had no plan and fewer resources dedicated to building civil society. We actually don’t like democracies much, like those in Europe for example. We tend to prefer those we buy to stay bought, and this is the realm of dictators and monarchs in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Staying bought is a problem for democracies. Consider the independence we saw in the democracy of Turkey when, in spite of many millions of loan guarantees and aid we were offering, they refused to allow our ground troops access to Iraq over Turkish territory.

  • Lastly, humanitarian reasons only make sense in an Orwellian scenario, where we kill people in order to save them. If humanitarian concern was a driver for our policies in Iraq, the economic sanctions would have been lifted instead of waiting until after we took over the country and unleashed chaos.


Now — if we understand why we actually went to Iraq, and we can honestly accept that there were real hard-core reasons (albeit publicly unspoken) for us to be there, we should be able to find a way ahead, to map a future.

  • My advice for the President comes in two versions.

  • The first version is the moral advice, on what I believe is the correct way to deal with what we have done in Iraq. The President would admit he lied, either with foreknowledge or innocently based on ignorance. He would admit that he based the invasion on false public reasons. This lying and mendaciousness, and the administration’s continuing cavalier attitude towards American lives, not to mention Iraqi lives, trumps the real but hidden reasons. I would advise that we pull out of Iraq completely, and leave any keys to our new bases with the local Iraqi in charge, if we can find him. We instruct our commercial companies in Iraq that they are no longer going to be subsidized by the American taxpayer at a monstrous markup, and that they are no longer going to be protected and served by American troops in armored, and unarmored, vehicles. Having done the right thing in Iraq, the President must then immediately fire, and in some cases bring up on charges the folks who advised him so terribly badly. This includes Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Condi Rice. Tenet is already gone. The President would then need to apologize to the American people, and beg their mercy.

    • For obvious reasons, this isn’t going to happen. No one, neither hawks nor doves, wants to give up what we have got in Iraq — for hawks it is the bases and the ability to leverage the region, without Saddam as a thorn in our side. For doves, the idea is that we broke it and somehow we must fix it. We cannot "fix it" and we cannot stay and conduct military operations without interference and high expense. Hawks and doves are both wrong on Iraq.

  • The second version of my roadmap for how to get out of the quicksand of Iraq is meant to be pragmatic. It isn’t much different from the first version, but it could be done. Here’s what we need to do:

    • Disassociate ourselves immediately from our hand-picked and CIA sponsored puppets. Offer Allawi (or whoever our current puppet is) and the other twenty Iraqis who support America’s agenda in Iraq safe passage and a nice pension.
    • Withdraw militarily to our key bases in Iraq, and stand down in preparation to depart.
    • Send a presidential representative who has credibility in the region, to make a farewell visit to major Iraqi political centers. This representative must not be a neoconservative ideologue. We can have no James Baker’s or Henry Kissinger’s (or Kissinger protégés like Jerry Bremer), no Tommy Franks or even John Abizaids. I’m thinking someone like retired Marine Tony Zinni who knows the region and the players, and has personal credibility with them. The guidance for the envoy is to simply diplomatically facilitate the extrication of America forces from Iraq. The envoy would work locally with whoever the regional leader is. Sound crazy? This is exactly how we deal in Afghanistan, working with local warlords, finding common ground by not dictating how they run their territory. Do you think Hamid Karzai runs anything outside Kabul? Some say he doesn’t even run Kabul, yet we are able to function in Afghanistan because we know how to deal.
    • Abandon all hope of getting our money back, gaining contracts or military bases in Iraq, having Iraq as a democracy that likes us or even having Iraq as a single unified state. The new Iraq, or the various states of the former Iraq, will get to decide if they want euros or dollars for their petroleum. We might get lucky on one or more of these things, but probably not. That’s what happens when you break things. Sometimes they can’t be put back together. Deal with it.
    • After a short time, we completely depart from Iraq. We have already moved many of our regional resources from Saudi Arabian bases into Iraq, so withdrawing from Iraq will seriously reduce our total military presence in the region from what it was during the sanction enforcement decade. We and our regional allies will have to deal with that too.
    • Power struggles in Iraq will continue, and people in Iraq will continue to suffer and die. However, this will be short-lived once we leave. If we stay, it continues and can only continue on the model of Vietnam in this regard. Almost a decade of an insurgency that only grew more intense and more deadly, consuming lives on both sides, until one side said "We win," and then went home. Iraq is not worth 55,000 dead American sons and daughters, not now or in ten years. It isn’t worth 1100, 1500, over 2000 dead American sons and daughters today. Most Americans already understand this in their hearts, but it is painful to admit it.
    • Unfortunately, this road map for the President also requires that he come clean with the American people on the real reasons for why we are in Iraq, the horrible mistakes of policy and planning that were made, and the waste of resources and lives for which this administration is responsible. We will all have to deal with this no matter what.

There was a great book published in late 2003 by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival. It is a book about accidents and surviving disasters. Gonzales is a contributing editor National Geographic Adventure magazine, and has studied and written about accidents, risk taking, and what distinguishes survivors from those who do not survive. Believe it or not, his book applies to foreign policy as well, especially foreign policy mistakes and a nation’s ability to survive them intact.

He describes in his book a term that is well known to orienteering buffs. It is called "map bending." Map bending occurs when people are lost or spatially disoriented. Reality no longer fits your paradigm. Your mental map of how things should be doesn’t fit what you see with your eyes, hear with your ears, feel and experience in the moment.

Instead of taking in the reality all around you and creating a new fact-based map of reality — the place you are at the moment — the person, or the administration, simply renames things so that they match the map. For example, instead of noticing that Iraq is a thriving ungoverned space that is producing increasingly effective insurgents and terrorists too, we might say, democracy is taking hold. Instead of seeing that the foreign businesses and domestic productivity is lower than it was under the poorly performing command economy on sanctions under Saddam Hussein, we say "Iraq is a free trade zone opportunity for the world."

Bending the map. It is stage three of the five sequential mental stages of being lost. Stage four comes next. Stage four is a deterioration of the person (I would suggest the nation as well) both rationally and emotionally, as the strategy fails to resolve the conflict. Gonzales writes of the fifth and final stage, describing an individual in a lost survival situation:

In the final stage, as you run out of options and energy, you must become resigned to your plight. Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must become Robinson Crusoe or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

We are, as a nation, bending the map in Iraq. What we need to do instead is open our eyes, recognize the reality, and make a new map. We need to find our self, as a nation. Which leads me to the third part of my talk tonight — how U.S. foreign policy should be conducted.


  • We have some guidance for our foreign policy. The Constitution grants to the Congress the sole authority to declare war. Holding Congress accountable to their clear responsibility would save us many of the problems we have gotten into when we instead allow the executive to conduct small warlike actions around the planet. During the Cold War, we made this a bad habit, and bad habits are hard to break. But we have the means to do it. Simply follow the law, both the letter and the spirit. Had Congress been asked to declare war on Iraq, they would have done two things. First, they would have asked for more information, and the CIA, in providing that information, would have admitted publicly and privately that their case that Iraq posed a material threat to America was weak. So weak in fact that war was not only not necessary, it was laughable. Secondly, just as appropriately, the Congress would have refused to declare war on Iraq, and we would have not invaded the country. However — it is important to know that had the President asked for a declaration of war, and Congress refused it, that same Congress would have bent over backwards to try to resolve the problem of Iraq short of war. Congress would have intently studied our real or perceived needs regarding Iraq. Our need for better basing in the Middle East, more investment opportunities and dollar sales of oil, our need to help Israel and reduce Middle Eastern terrorism, all would have been a focus for the hundreds of smart people in our Congress. Answers and solutions would have followed.

The President’s contemporary national security strategy, published in 2002, declared we would make pre-emptive war when we felt it necessary. With an honorable Congress, when George W. Bush suggested that we attack Iraq under this pretentious "strategy," this request would have been perceived by the Congress in Shakespearean terms, as "… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

  • The Constitution as a guide for our basic foreign policy should be enough. But we have the words of past great Presidents, from Washington and Jefferson to Lincoln to Eisenhower.

    • George Washington warned in his farewell speech of establishing permanent alliances; Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address posed America’s foreign policy as “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.”
    • Abraham Lincoln, before becoming the President who would centralize and enforce a new strange interpretation of the Constitution, spoke wisely as a Representative who was a leading opponent of the Mexican-American War. He publicly recognized in January 1848 “that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President."
    • Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech includes a warning against the rising and politically powerful military-industrial congressional complex. Allow me to share a bit of his farewell address with you. Eisenhower said,

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in the newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research — these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

So we were told only a few years ago, it seems. If we heed the Constitution, the law, and the wise words of our greatest presidents, we have everything we need to conduct a wise and prudent foreign policy. Would it be slow to anger, quiet instead of loud and noisy, oriented to peace and real trade and exchange, and not war? Would we lead the world towards a brighter future? Yes, on all counts.

Would it be oriented to defense? Absolutely. On September 11, 2001, we were attacked, and a handful of fighter airplanes were scrambled, accomplishing nothing. The intelligence communities were caught in a lurch. Trillions of dollars invested in military might, and a trillion more in the intelligence infrastructure, and we cannot defend our country. This is because the investment is not for defense. It is for offense, for expanding and administering what can be considered an American empire.

The ingredients for an improved American foreign policy are available for us today. We have known it all along. It is within us, within our heritage as a great nation. Like a person caught in an avalanche, we are waking up a bit disoriented, and in considerable pain. Our inscrutable foreign policy seems alien to us in many ways. We feel lost and without options. But the answer is not to bend the map, but instead to open our eyes wide to the truth. And our hearts, too. We need to find ourselves first. To find ourselves, and our nation as well, we must get back in touch with our core, our Constitution, and our wisest and best lessons from the past. That this happens to be the libertarian or classically liberal solution for America in the 21st century should not frighten anyone. Instead, like successful survivors in the final stage of being lost, we must resign ourselves to the reality we find ourselves in, collect and draw on our core values, and then move forward slowly, cautiously, but with faith and confidence. Honestly allowing our core values as a nation, our law, and our best lessons to guide our foreign policy is the quiet answer. It can, if we let it, resist the excitement and the emotion and the panic and the greed that sometimes leads us into foreign adventures that come to no good thing. Our foreign policy, as with our deployed army, needs to come home.