Let’s quit kidding each other.
All of us, critics and supporters alike, need to start being realistic about why America went to war in Iraq. Not only is the unvarnished truth less scandalous than commonly assumed, it is far more defensible than the party line nervously being adhered to by the White House.
There are reasons, and there are reasons
In the days leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush said he believed Saddam possessed WMD, and that justified war. Bush was telling the truth. Not, however, the entire truth. Instead, he was engaging in a foreign policy practice with a long and (in many cases) honorable history – i.e., putting forth arguments intended primarily, not to illuminate the grand strategy, but to give allies the political cover they need in order to cooperate.
Consider the Cold War.
Before the decade of the 1940s was over, it had become evident the gravest strategic challenge facing the United States was the possibility of a shooting war with the Soviet Union.
To meet this threat, America decided to go for strategic depth – i.e., to deploy its armed forces in such a way as to keep potential conflict as far from the US homeland as possible. Concretely, this translated into a huge American military presence in Western Europe. If the Cold War were to go hot, our strategic depth meant there would be a good chance the devastation would be confined to Eurasia, sparing North America. This would be especially true if neither the US nor the USSR chose to use strategic nuclear weapons.
Obviously, the West European governments knew exactly what the Americans were doing, but did not object – they had their own deep, strategic calculations. With a large US presence on the Continent, the West Europeans reasoned, the cost to the Warsaw Pact of an attempted invasion rose dramatically, and its likelihood therefore fell. European leaders saw their countries as being safer with the American deployment, even though it meant that World War III, if it ever came, would almost surely be fought on European soil. (The West European strategy assumed, of course, that the Russians were rational. Happily, they were.)
Now, here is the thing to notice.
When the time came to publicly advance and defend their Western European deployments, no American President – from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan – ever said, “Our troops are in Europe to deter aggression. But if a shooting war breaks out, it will be Bonn and Brussels left in ruin, not Philadelphia and Los Angeles.”
Had a President actually said that, not a single West European government could have agreed to the US presence, regardless of what they knew to be their nation’s own deep, strategic self-interest.
Instead, we said we were there to defend democracy. We were in Spain and Germany and England and Italy because these were our democratic brethren, and democracies must stand together in the face of Communist aggression. And the West European governments said the same thing the Americans did.
Were all those American Presidents and policy makers, along with their European counterparts, lying?
Of course not. They really did care about democracy, and about the protection of free societies against tyrannies. Their talk about defending democracy was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. It was the part of the truth that multiple governments could all publicly endorse, all at the same time. There was more to the Atlantic alliance than simply defending democracy, but that ‘more’ involved stark, national self-interest that – almost by definition – two or more nations cannot share.
Further, America’s deeper strategic intentions were in no meaningful sense ‘secret.’ Anyone with a map of the world and the slightest understanding of modern warfare could see what Washington was doing. But for sound diplomatic reasons, American leaders emphasized a theme – i.e., the common defense of democracy – that allies could openly endorse and materially support.
Moralizers may claim that anything short of the whole truth is never justified, but they are wrong. This is especially the case in the affairs of nations, where the carefully worded diplomatic fig leaf often means the difference between cooperation and conflict. And during the Cold War, this difference between cooperation and conflict was the difference between containing the Warsaw Pact and being defeated by it.
WMD as Casus Belli
Now apply that Cold War parallel to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The plain truth is this. We invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam in order to change the Middle East. The Iraq campaign was, and continues to be, part of a global strategy to kill the threat from militant Islam by pressuring (and even transforming) the nations and transnational systems that support it. That is the deep, relatively unarticulated strategy behind Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I say relatively unarticulated because, in fact, Bush has been far more public about his deep strategy in the War on Terror that were any of his Cold War predecessors. In key public statements, especially the National Security Strategy (September 2002) and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (February 2003), as well as speeches like the President’s address to the graduating class at West Point in June 2002, the Bush Administration has laid out its intention to force dangerous and uncooperative states to change their policies.
This plan to make governments of the Middle East rethink their strategic positions, policies, and calculations is the War on Terror’s analog to America’s Cold War ‘strategic depth’ architecture in Europe.
Of course, a stark declaration that the United States intended to force fundamental policy change on the states of the Middle East was not something that other governments, especially Middle Eastern ones, could accept. The United States could not simply go to the Gulf sheiks and say, “Join us in freeing your region of poisonous, autocratic rule.”
Instead, Bush emphasized the broadly appealing goal of ridding Mesopotamia of Saddam’s WMD arsenal. This was a goal Bush honestly believed in – again, there is no evidence of lying. But far more importantly, it was a goal that Middle Eastern governments could publicly support, or at least quietly accept. It was a goal even Germany and France could have supported, had they chosen to do so.
The destruction of WMD became for the War on Terror what ‘defense of democracy’ was for the Cold War – a central and genuinely important goal, but one whose primary value was as a policy that potential allies could openly endorse, or at least refrain from opposing.
The Middle Eastern rulers knew full well there was more to America’s intention than simply getting rid of mustard gas. This is why, for example, we saw a state like Saudi Arabia, even before the invasion was launched, talking openly about the need for more responsive and democratic institutions. The Arab rulers saw the handwriting on the wall. (Not without significance, the very name eventually chosen for the invasion – i.e., Operation Iraqi Freedom – pointed beyond simple WMD eradication, toward the Bush Administration’s grand strategy.)
Facing the Facts
We are at the point where everyone, on all sides of the conversation, needs to pull his head out of the sand.
A few suggestions on how to begin.
Bush needs to admit the obvious. When he made the pre-war case for Saddam’s having WMD, it seemed like a slam dunk. Clearly, it was not. The President needs to say this.
But while not denying the importance of WMD, Bush must get back to the grand vision articulated in the National Security Strategy and its corollaries. If critics say these points were not made strongly enough before the war, the Administration can grant that. At the same time, Bush is hardly responsible for commentators who chose not to acquaint themselves with the fundamental documents of American foreign policy, or not listen when the Commander-in-Chief addressed his new officers at West Point.
Rather than wistfully clinging to WMD, the President needs to point to the important regional changes we are seeing in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Libya coming clean on WMD, the Khan affair in Pakistan, Iran’s quiet cooperation, the Saudi confrontation with al Qai’da inside the Kingdom, Syria’s search for accommodation – none of these historic strategic shifts would be happening without Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the credit goes to Bush and the National Security Strategy he and his team are implementing. (The Middle East democracy initiative announced earlier this month is the latest link in the Bush Administration’s global strategic chain.)
As for the critics, they need to get serious about their responsibilities in this national debate. If they have an alternative strategy, they should articulate it. If all they have are inanities – like John Kerry’s vapid assertion that the terrorist threat is primarily a problem of intelligence and law enforcement – then they should be big enough to say so.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, currently on the editorial board of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.