In his new book, George Packer traces the intellectual basis for a war that is nearing the start of a fourth year despite the successful invasion by the US, Britain and Australia in 2003
February 04, 2006
WHY did the United States invade Iraq? It still isn't possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War. Richard Haass, director of policy planning in the US State Department in the lead-up to the war, said that he will go to his grave not knowing the answer.
It was something that some people wanted to do. Before the invasion, Americans argued not just about whether a war should happen, but for what reasons it should happen - what the real motives of the Bush administration were and should be. Since the invasion, we have continued to argue, and we will go on arguing for years to come. Iraq is the Rashomon of wars.
The answer has something to do with September 11. But what, exactly? The year-and-a-half between the terror attacks and the invasion of Iraq was crowded with large, aggressive ideas. Like the liberal revolutions of 1848, or the Bolshevik surge of 1917, or the utopian spring of 1968, September 11 gave political intellectuals plenty of work.
Throughout 2002, as the Bush administration pursued its course of inevitable confrontation with Saddam, at the same time, outside the walls of power, there rose a clamour of arguments about the coming war, the nature of the enemy, the role of America in the world. Ideas burned hot across an astonishing assortment of minds.
Some of these minds were granted access to the highest offices of government. Bernard Lewis, the eminent British-born professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton, who had first been introduced to official Washington in the early 1970s by Richard Perle [a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and former chairman of the Defence Policy Board and a Reagan-era assistant defence secretary], became the administration hawks' chief guide to the Arab world, along with Fouad Ajami, a suave Lebanese-born scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where his friend Paul Wolfowitz [until last year deputy secretary of defence] was dean during the 1990s.
In 2002, Lewis and Ajami were summoned to meet Dick Cheney. They told the US vice-president what everyone else could read in books such as Lewis's What Went Wrong? and Ajami's The Dream Palace of the Arabs.
The once-great Arab and Muslim world is a sick man, afflicted with corrupt dictatorships, repressed populations, extreme ideologies, paranoid conspiracy theories, cultural and economic backwardness. For decades, even centuries, this civilisation has steadily fallen behind as the West and the rest of the world progressed into modernity.
This decay is a source of humiliation and rage to millions of Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. In recent years, the sickness has produced a threat that ranges far beyond the region. American power has helped to keep the Arab world in decline by supporting sclerotic tyrannies; only an American break with its own history in the region can reverse it. The Arabs cannot pull themselves out of their historic rut. They need to be jolted out by some foreign-born shock. The overthrow of the Iraqi regime would provide one.
"Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons," Ajami wrote in early 2003, "the driving motivation of a new American endeavour in Iraq and in neighbouring Arab lands should be modernising the Arab world."
The inevitable outcry from Arabs should be discounted as "the 'road rage' of a thwarted Arab world - the congenital condition of a culture yet to take full responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds".
Ajami and Lewis were experts, area specialists. They were joined in championing the coming war with Iraq by a motley crew of generalists - writers, journalists, professors, activists. There was, to begin, [foreign-policy scholar and author] Robert Kagan. He and [editor of The Weekly Standard] William Kristol had supported John McCain as the candidate of "national greatness" during the 2000 Republican primary; George W. Bush's call for "humility" and narrowly defined interests in foreign policy represented everything Kagan had argued against during the '90s. But after September 11, President Bush began to sound like a neoconservative, and The Weekly Standard [published by News Corporation] became his most influential journalistic champion, enjoying the same privileged relationship that the early New Republic had with Woodrow Wilson when he brought America into World War I.
Writing in January 2002, Kagan and Kristol urged military intervention in Iraq as part of America's reassertion of global leadership: "The failure of the United States to take risks, and to take responsibility, in the 1990s, paved the way to September 11." Nothing short of the survival of "liberal civilisation" itself depended on American action in Iraq.
There was the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank whose tentacles extended deep into the administration. At seminars and in papers, AEI's resident fellows began to incubate grand theories of an unrivalled and unapologetic American empire, more powerful than any in history, which would spread democracy by force, securing national interests by exporting national values, beginning in Iraq. "You have to start somewhere!" exclaimed Danielle Pletka, a vice-president of AEI and former aide to former Republican senator Jesse Helms.
"There are always a million excuses not to do something like this." Pletka wrote the pro-war testimony that Ronald Reagan's secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger, gave to Congress in August 2002, including these words: "People say there will be chaos. I disagree, but I must confess frankly that even chaos would be better than Saddam."
An apocalyptic cast of mind, and the desire of a small group in possession of a big idea to push history in a dramatically new direction, belongs exclusively to neither the Left nor the Right. Often, it's a characteristic of individuals who migrate from one flock to the other without pausing to graze on tasteless facts under the dull sky of moderation. The original neoconservatives had once been leftists themselves - not ordinary Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy liberals, but Trotskyists, Lovestoneites, Schachtmanites and other exotica of the hothouse world of New York intellectuals in the 1930s and '40s.
Christopher Hitchens, the British polemicist, told me: "That crowd, the neocon group, somewhere in their cortex is the name of Leon Trotsky. If I were to say 'Kronstadt' to [former Senate majority leader] Trent Lott, I don't think I'd get a whole hell of a lot for my trouble," Hitchens said, referring to the 1921 mutiny of Russian sailors that was put down by Trotsky's forces. "But if I were to say 'Kronstadt' to Paul Wolfowitz, I think he would more than know what I was talking about."
Perhaps this explains why several of the most prominent Iraq hawks came from the Left. Most prominent of all was Hitchens himself. After the terror attacks, he broke with comrades such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, jettisoned his long-standing column at The Nation magazine, became a vocal Bush supporter, and heartily girded himself for battle with what he called "Islamo-fascism".
Hitchens could be as gracious and thoughtful in private as he was scathingly contemptuous in public and in print. When I sat down with him for lunch near his apartment in Washington in late 2002 - an expensive, all-afternoon business - he seemed to have rediscovered his youth in the New Left. The [exile] Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi had taken the place of the revolutionary socialist movement, and Hitchens relished the coming war.
"I feel much more like I used to in the '60s, working with revolutionaries," he said. "That's what I'm doing, I'm helping a very desperate underground. That reminds me of my better days quite poignantly. Waving a banner with Saddam Hussein's slogans on it, namely, 'No War on Iraq', which confuses Iraq with Saddam, which is what he wants - that's not revolutionary politics to me."
An American-led overthrow of Saddam would be "revolution from above" - a phrase coined by none other than Trotsky, to describe Stalin's concentration of power in the hands of the Communist Central Committee. Trotsky meant it ironically; I was fairly certain that Hitchens did not.
Having spent most of his life attacking American foreign policy, Hitchens had come to the conclusion that "after the dust settles, the only revolution left standing is the American one. Americanisation is the most revolutionary force in the world."
The whole appeal lay in its audacity - to put an American political and military stamp, with a friendly government and permanent bases, in the heart of the region where al-Qa'ida drew most of its recruits. With will and imagination, America could strike one great blow at terrorism, tyranny, underdevelopment, and the region's hardest, saddest problem. Ideas as big as this attract strange bedfellows. The pairings both for and against grew so weirdly promiscuous that it was less useful to think in terms of Left and Right than of interventionists and anti-interventionists, or revolutionaries and realists.
Old-fashioned realists from the US Republican Party establishment found themselves on the same side of the debate as anti-imperialist leftists and far-Right isolationists, while liberal veterans of humanitarian war became uneasy allies of administration hawks. Brent Scowcroft was tangled up with Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan; Michael Ignatieff woke up next to Paul Wolfowitz.
Throughout 2002, those officials who were actually charged with making policy on Iraq were not talking about liberal civilisation or revolution from above. It wasn't at all clear that Bush's inner circle shared the dreams and visions of war intellectuals outside government. The basis for war - the casus belli - was clearly and narrowly defined by the Bush administration, beginning with the President's own warning in his State of the Union address: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." If there was to be war, the reasons would be syllogistic, not eschatological: Saddam has had and still seeks weapons of mass destruction; he has used them on his own citizens in the past; he might now give them
to al-Qa'ida or another terrorist group; terrorists want to destroy the United States. Therefore, the United States must disarm or overthrow Saddam.
The President's "axis of evil" speech, coming just weeks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, signalled the next stage in the war on terrorism and the basis for further action. The speech dramatically expanded the theatre of the war, but it did so on relatively narrow grounds. As Wolfowitz told an interviewer after the fall of Baghdad, WMD was the least common denominator: "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction."
Wolfowitz suggested that he himself had bigger ideas - a realignment of American power and influence in the Middle East, away from theocratic Saudi Arabia [home to so many of the September 11 hijackers], and toward a democratic Iraq, as the beginning of an effort to cleanse the whole region of murderous regimes and ideologies. This would have been a much broader case for war than WMD and closer to the arguments of influential people outside the administration, such as Lewis, Ajami and Kagan. Resting on a complex and abstract theory, it would also have been much harder to sell to the public.
Throughout the year, WMD remained the administration's rationale for a war it had in all likelihood decided upon as early as November 2001. [There was a recurring locution that expressed the diplomatic doublespeak of the prewar period and that officials continued to use up to the very brink of invasion, as if the administration were being dragged against its will into hostilities with Iraq that it was doing everything possible to avoid: "If or when war becomes necessary..."] Having settled on WMD as the cause for war - if or when there was to be a war - the administration was stuck with the limits of its own argument.
In July 2002, Richard Dearlove, Britain's head of foreign intelligence, reported back to Tony Blair and his top officials about meetings in Washington. According to a secret memo made public in May 2005, Dearlove told his colleagues: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."
Even as Bush and his war cabinet made their particular case on Iraq, they laid out a far-reaching grand strategy for the use of American power in the world. The President began to articulate it in a series of speeches to the military academies. [Then National Security Adviser and now Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice codified it in a document prepared under her supervision and titled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.
The first draft, written by Haass, was too long and mild for Rice's taste, and she turned over the revision to Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who had been her colleague on the National Security Council under the first president Bush. Zelikow produced a short, eloquent statement of principles with a new passage on pre-emptive war, which, when the document was released in September 2002, was immediately taken as a justification for war with Iraq.
The new document announced a new Bush Doctrine. This doctrine promised "a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests". It would seek to promote "a balance of power that favours human freedom". Bush and his national security adviser Rice seemed to be splitting the difference between the realism of Bush's father and his national security adviser, Rice's mentor Brent Scowcroft, and the idealism of the neoconservatives who were now ascendant.
But in fact, the new document's high-flown language and, even more, its substance marked a decisive break with the foreign policy establishment. The "balance of power" was out; in the new era, the old Cold War policies of containment and deterrence no longer applied. Rogue states and global terrorists could not be deterred. America, pre-eminent and without rivals, would ensure the peace in part by pre-empting threats to peace. It would do so within the existing international framework if possible but with ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" if necessary, or even alone.
After the terror attacks, the world's superpower could no longer be neutral toward the politics practised inside other countries, where "stability" might actually be a dangerously advanced form of decay. America would now actively promote freedom around the world.
Freedom was the key word of the 2002 document, whose opening lines are these: "The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom -- and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." In its long struggle for the soul of the Republican Party and American foreign policy, neoconservatism had finally triumphed. The first chance to test the creed was coming up fast, in Iraq.
The worm in the apple, the seed of future trouble, is easier to see in retrospect. The leading figures of the Bush war cabinet had all worked at high levels in at least one previous administration; some of them had served in three or four. No Democratic contemporary could claim anything like their experience. Counting his years in Congress, Cheney had been an influential insider under every Republican president since Nixon. Except for the [Bill] Clinton years, Wolfowitz's career in government extended through every administration from Nixon to the second Bush. George W. Bush's foreign-policy advisers were vastly experienced, they were aggressively self-confident, and they were peculiarly unsuited to deal with the consequences of the Bush Doctrine.
They entered government in the aftermath of the trauma in Vietnam, and they were forged as Cold War hawks. They devoted their careers to restoring American military power and its projection around the world. Through the three decades of their public lives, the only thing America had to fear was its own return to weakness. But after the Cold War ended, they sat out the debates of the 1990s about humanitarian war, international standards, nation-building, democracy promotion. They had little to say about the new, borderless security threats -- failed states, ethnic conflict, poverty, "loose nukes" in postcommunist Russia, and global terrorism.
Bush himself came into office with no curiosity about the world, only a suspicion that his predecessor had entangled America in far too many obscure places of no importance to national interests. Wolfowitz alone among them supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, but his world view left even him unprepared to deal with or even to acknowledge a stateless organisation with an ideology of global jihad.
When September 11 forced the imagination to grapple with something radically new, the President's foreign policy advisers reached for what they had always known. The threat, as they saw it, lay in well-armed enemy states. The answer, as ever, was military power and the will to use it.
Edited extract from The Assassins' Gate by George Packer, published by Faber & Faber,Link Here