Speeches by Jim

Government Ethics in the Post-Iraq War Era

June 23, 2003
The Investment Dealers Association, Canada

It pains me to point this out, but in my view the United States invasion of Iraq was one of the most ill-advised and reckless actions that the US government has ever taken. I make this statement not as a knee-jerk anti-war activist, but as one who still proudly defends our effort in Vietnam, and who has spent a total of five years inside the Pentagon.

We should start with the premise that a unilateral war – a war in which a country attacks another when it has not been itself attacked – must be undertaken only when the country’s national survival is clearly at stake, or under circumstances where the international community is so threatened that a strong power such as the US must save it from an enormous menace. Iraq clearly did not meet either of those tests.

Additionally, I find it regrettable that the Bush administration squandered an historic opportunity to unify most of the world against the notion of organized international terrorism, and through its relentless pursuit of war against Iraq created instead an era of unprecedented bad feelings. The present administration accomplished this through a puzzling campaign of arrogance and condescension toward long-time allies and by completely redefining the war against terrorism until it became a war against Iraq.

This “morphing” of the war against international terrorism into the invasion and occupation of Iraq had its roots in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when many neo-conservatives, led by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and key figures in such think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, believed that the US should have continued on to Baghdad after ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait, in order to establish their dream of a “MacArthurian regency” in Iraq. In the first days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, these well-placed advocates, many of whom are serving in the Bush Administration, moved quickly to justify not a general response against Al Qaeda, but an all-out invasion of Iraq, possibly followed by invasions in Iran and Syria. While their logic was that an Iraq invasion would make the world a safer place, proper strategic thinking actually argued in the opposite direction. If terrorism was principally a Mideast phenomenon prior to 9/11, after that date it was clearly a global dilemma. This made it imperative that smarter minds in America resist the notion of taking over one country in one region, potentially for decades, when the threat now extended across several continents and through a large percentage of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

And so we reach the question of ethics, and their impact on the formulation of a policy that will now be with us for a long time. The justification for a unilateral war against Iraq simply did not exist on the facts.

Did these key players then lie to achieve their objective of an invasion and long-term occupation of Iraq? If so, why? And what are the immediate consequences? And given the immediate consequences, what are the long-term ramifications, both for the Bush Administration and for the United States?

Maybe we should simply use a softer, less provocative term than lying. Let’s call it conscious deception. For what does seem clear is that a small group of highly organized people worked very hard to manipulate the American public, its government, and the world’s media, and not simply about the prospect that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at its immediate beck and call. This process involved quite a bit of “reverse engineering” – that is, working backwards from the solution they had already agreed upon – the invasion and occupation of Iraq – and coming up with the appropriate formulas to justify the pre-ordained result.

On what issues did they mislead the American public and media? First, that invading Iraq had anything directly to do with the war against international terrorism. Second, that Saddam Hussein had direct ties to Al Qaeda. Third, that Saddam Hussein possessed an active capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction on international targets – and here it should be emphasized that these were specific and definite allegations of either weapons or delivery systems that could be in place in a matter of hours, rather than amorphous “development” programs. And finally – extremely importantly at this point – that it would not take a sizeable military presence to run the occupation of Iraq. The Administration’s error on this last point was not negligence, as many now claim. It involved a conscious deception regarding the true price that would have to be paid after the initial military incursion. The neo-cons in the Pentagon were given consistent military advice that was deliberately ignored, warning that it would take hundreds of thousands of American troops to stabilize a post-invasion Iraq.

And so the question becomes: Why did they misrepresent these issues? The answers to these questions are not as complex as the media might like to make them. The people who gave us the war in Iraq knew that the American public would not support a war against Saddam Hussein without something as grievous as a tie-in with international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They knew that Americans would not support a war that was to be followed by an open-ended occupation with hundreds of thousands of troops. And most importantly, they believed, and still believe, that they can get away with it. Their logic involved a gamble — that a quick battlefield success would erase the questions that led to the war itself. They were certain that American “boots on the ground” would change the public perception, because as soon as our forces were in harm’s way the American public would rally around them. And rally around them the American people did, at least until the conventional fighting was over, and the tedious occupation began.

Many of them misrepresented the issues because they also believed that it is the prerogative of governments in time of war to lie to the common people, who in their view might not really understand the complexities of war. Sir Winston Churchill once famously pointed out that sometimes in war, a bodyguard of lies is necessary to protect the truth. But here the lies were told merely to get us into a war. And there was no overriding truth to be protected.

And finally, they lied because the stakes to them were worth it, and in their minds would become irreversible once the US actually began the war that they had sought. Their goal was to achieve their own long-term objective of having American troops on the ground in that part of the world for the indefinite future, for a variety of political and strategic reasons that are part and parcel of the think tank discussions, but were never articulated by political leaders who were making the case for the war.

The immediate results of these lies are, quite frankly, gravely serious. As opposed to the oft-cited situation in Japan after World War Two, where General Douglas MacArthur carefully preserved the structure of the Japanese system and governed through it, the government of Iraq has been eliminated without a government to replace it. Our troops are hostages to a solution and – predictably – have become terrorist targets on a daily basis. The party line is that these terrorist targets are mere leftovers from Saddam’s regime, but the reality seems to be that these are also people who have come to resent an American occupation. Many among the Sunni faction are contesting our occupation in what is now being called the Sunni Triangle. The Kurds are waiting to carve out their own political territory in the north. The Shi’a factions are waiting for the right moment to weigh in on Iraq’s future, and whichever way they decide to do so, they are looking at a win. If true democratic elections are held, they hold a majority of the votes. If they decide to fight a guerilla war, they will have been able to watch the Sunni and other guerrilla fighters, and to learn from their mistakes.

All of this is occurring under the umbrella of an increasing hatred of the US around the world, which will probably translate into further terrorist recruiting. And, not incidentally, the people who brought us this war are strongly urging further action in Iran and Syria.

This is the situation that the US has inherited from the actions of those who pushed us into an unnecessary war. And they have brought both the Bush Administration and the country some critical long-term problems.

What kind of problems? We have a huge percentage of the US military committed to the internal security of one country – a country that did not even directly threaten us. We are now in danger of having to readjust our military forces all around the world in order to feed the requirements of this occupation, which still is tying down about 250 thousand American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. As a result, we may see American interests dramatically affected in other parts of the world. — 70 percent of the US Army’s operational forces and probably 50 percent of the other services are now deployed overseas. It’s also conceivable that many in the American military will begin voting with their feet, declining to re-enlist in the face of continuous overseas deployments. Also, the countries that were supposed to be intimidated by our actions have, in many cases, become emboldened. For instance, both Iran and North Korea are now rushing to complete nuclear programs, and neither seem to fear an American invasion because it is widely known that the American military is stretched so thin.

As the ramifications of this policy unfold, the American public will probably start losing confidence in the veracity of President Bush. If this happens, Bush is toast. Recent poll numbers indicate that this may already be happening, as Bush’s approval ratings are moving steadily downhill. In addition to the “truth” factor, it is now clear that paying for this unnecessary war is going to start showing its effects on the American economy. It is difficult to pin down the Administration on actual cost, but it is clearly going to be at least 40 Billion dollars over the next year.

Many opposition politicians are now claiming that President Bush deliberately lied to the American public in order to bring us to war. I believe differently. I believe that Bush lacked the leadership style that would have allowed him to seek out and understand opposing views, and thus became captured by the zeal of the neo-conservatives in his administration, led by Vice President Cheney but dominated by key figures in the Pentagon itself. Thus the true debate over the next year or so should not be about his veracity, but about his competence.

In any event, we have now inherited the Tar Baby of Iraq. What can be done about this? Unfortunately, not much.

We can solve the Palestinian question, bringing peace to Israel, which might change the entire dynamic of the region. History does not give us much reason to be optimistic on this count, particularly over the next year.

We can declare victory in Iraq and withdraw, turning the occupation over to a United Nations force. This option is perhaps the only one with true possibilities, but the people who brought us this war have so alienated our allies that they are now reaping the whirlwind of their own past arrogance. And few of those who got us into this situation want the United States to leave Iraq in the near future anyway.

We can hold fair elections and turn Iraq back over to its own people. This prospect is unlikely, and raises the question of whether those who invaded Iraq really want the Shi’a to run the government.

We could pump enough oil that the Iraqis will grow so rich that they don’t mind being ruled by an American dominated government. Some people actually have raised this possibility as a serious option, but it misunderstands both the history and the culture of the region.

Consequently, absent some deus ex machina that will allow the US to withdraw its forces, we are faced with two unavoidable realities. The first is that we must prepare for a long-term guerrilla war that could bring in Muslim extremists from around the world who now have American soldiers in fixed positions and don’t mind dying to kill a few. And the second is that the US military is going to be overworked, stretched thin and strategically vulnerable for some time to come.

This is unhealthy. The unfortunate truth is that it was also unnecessary.