Liberal hawk Bill Keller changes his mind on the Iraq war

During the Bush years, the New York Times executive editor Bill Keller ranked high on any list of people you would have thought too smart and humane to support the invasion of Iraq.  Now, to mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks and his own move from management to opinion, Keller has published a thoughtful piece about why he believes the Iraq war was wrong.  Alas, he has reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, which makes his current-day reassessment almost as inadequate as his real-time advocacy had been.  What Keller misses, incredibly, is an assessment of George W. Bush and of the senior figures in his administration: their true intentions in launching the invasion and their competence to adjust to the dynamic nature of wartime decision-making.  The closest Keller comes is to credit Slate’s Fred Kaplan, another liberal supporter of the Iraq invasion, as looking “like Nostradamus” for recognizing Bush’s incompetence a month after the invasion; but, of course, by then the damage was done.  If the liberal hawks had been less caught up in the post-9/11 fever of retaliation, they might have asked this question before throwing in their lot with a president they trusted on no other issue.

Even now, Keller lays out the case for war as if its merits could be assessed separate from the administration that made it:

Broadly speaking, there were three arguments for invading Iraq: the humanitarian case that Saddam Hussein was a monster whose cruelties were intolerable to civilized nations; the opportunity case — that we might plant the seeds of democracy and freedom in a region desperately in need of them; and the strategic case that Hussein posed an important threat, not only because of his unaccounted-for weapons stockpiles but also because of his habit of smashing through borders and the hospitality he offered to terrorists of various kinds.

For many of us, the monster argument was potent, even if it was not sufficient…The idea that America could install democracy in Iraq always seemed to me the most wishful of the rationales for war…[so] the main selling point for war in Iraq, at least for the American public, was that Hussein represented a threat to American security.

Actually, there was a crucial fourth argument, which is whether Bush and his administration really believed any of the other three arguments.  This is not mere idle speculation.  War is like a marriage: once you set out on it you are wedded to the person who brought you into it so you have to judge how they are likely to respond across a wide range of unforeseeable conditions.  With Iraq, that judgment was predicated on an assessment of the Bush administration’s true intentions because, over time, the dynamic decision-making of war is going to force a policy triage of all but the highest priorities.  And with that in mind, there was reason to distrust the Bush administration on all three of Keller’s points.  Humanitarian, because historically the Republicans have disparaged this as a foreign policy goal and Bush himself had never expressed any great humanitarian concerns until it became convenient to do so in Iraq many years after its most egregious human rights violations — hence, the relevance of the video showing the Donald Rumsfeld/Saddam Hussein meeting in 1983.  Democracy, because Bush offered no ideological or policy framework to make this credible as an administration priority in the region and the tremendous violence that would be unleashed by war seemed an unlikely vehicle for persuading Iraqis of the merits of freedom and democracy; as a result, this argument seemed less opportunity, as Keller presents it, than opportunistic, a shameless co-opting of a liberal policy priority to win over would-be hawks like Keller — hence the concern about the dictatorial exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi who seemed set to take over and the top-down, totally undemocratic way in which the invasion plan was crafted and sold to the public.

And then there are the infamous WMDs.  Here it is worth looking at Keller’s argument more closely.  He writes: “We forget how broad the consensus was that [Saddam] Hussein was hiding the kind of weapons that could rain holocaust on a neighbor or be delivered to America by proxy.”  Though there were some, like the nuclear inspector Hans Blix, who dissented quite forcefully, it is true that there was broad agreement on this issue: I, too, assumed Saddam had such weapons programs.  But where there was no consensus at all was in the latter half of that sentence, about what he would do with those weapons.  The hawks assumed Saddam would use any weapons he had against the US or our allies in the region and that war was the only way to contain that threat.  But this was illogical: if Saddam had had these weapons all along this was already a demonstration that he was reluctant to use them against external enemies; if he did not have them, but wanted them, then this was an illustration that sanctions — as blunt and heartless an instrument as they are — had already succeeded in containing his ambitions.  Indeed, there was nothing in Saddam’s calculus that would have changed with September 11th: his priority was still to maintain control over his country and his power at its center; the destruction of the World Trade Center showed that the US could be hit by a non-state actor against whom it was difficult to retaliate, but Saddam was a state so did not have this advantage.  What changed with September 11th was our sense of invulnerability on our own soil, which made us newly afraid that Saddam might do what he had never done before.  That’s not much of a reason to go to war.

So if Keller’s three arguments for war were not the ones motivating Bush, what was?  War is a complex policy and different constituencies rally to the cause for different reasons.  For some, the invasion was really about oil, for others about protecting Israel or our other allies in the region, for others, no doubt, the WMD threat truly seemed convincing, as did the prospect of an alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda.  But to the extent there was an overarching strategic reason, I believe it was this: after September 11th, Bush felt we needed to hit back to demonstrate our strength and resilience and Saddam, far from being the most potent threat, seemed the easiest straw man to knock down, having been crippled by years of sanctions and entirely without allies.  I suspect that people like Cheney and Rumsfeld genuinely believed the war could be won easily — in Rumsfeld’s case, it would have the added advantage of proving on the field of battle his plan to shift to a lighter, faster military, which had been opposed by many within the armed forces — and they (famously) paid little heed to the question of what would happen after that.  And they were right: the invasion was easily won.  But they were profoundly wrong, too: the aftermath bled us dry at a great cost in resources and lives and demonstrated not the reach of our power but its limitations.  And that, really, is the goal that terrorism — anywhere, in any form, against any target — is trying to achieve: it compels overreaction that drains the superior power of its force and radicalizes a moderate population alienated by the collateral damage of that overreaction.

Ten years on, that is why Keller should have opposed the invasion of Iraq: the blind, senseless, vengeful overreaction is as much a part of the dynamic of terrorism as the terrorist attack itself.  We should have resisted it but we did not.


Click here to read my thoughts on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which has more about the way in which terrorism effects a jiujitsu move to use the superior power’s strength against itself.  Or here to read excerpts from my journals on that day as I stood on a street corner in downtown Manhattan watching the towers collapse.  Or here to see the full list of my posts on the Middle East.



One Response to “Liberal hawk Bill Keller changes his mind on the Iraq war”

  1. Johnnelsonbmt says:

    Sean, good analysis but you miss an additional motivation for the invasion which fits nicely with the Rummy, Cheney belief in a quick, inexpensive victory:  Namely, Karl Rove knew that W was much more re-electable as a War President!

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