Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Here's An Idea -- YOU Shut Up!

Slate's Fred Kaplan examines the President's recent counterattacks on his growing chorus of critics -- particularly among Senate Democrats.

The gist of Bush's argument regarding the retrospectively flimsy reasons for invading Iraq? "Hey, you were wrong too, so shut up!"

Kaplan's point is that this is true, but only as long as you don't scratch beneath the surface. The evidence in early 2003 was indeed that Saddam was a dangerous threat. The state of the art analysis was Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm -- the argument (and book) that I certainly bought at the time:
It is the inadequacy of all the other options toward Iraq that leads us to the last resort of a full-scale invasion. Containment is eroding, and it is no longer realistic to believe that it can be revived in a meaningful sense and sustained over time to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. ... Unfortunately, the only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam's regime, and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.
What we now know, of course, is that containment largely had worked and there were no weapons of mass destruction to get rid of. As Pollack wrote in a February, 2004 article for The Atlantic:

The U.S. intelligence community's belief toward the end of the Clinton Administration that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program and was close to acquiring nuclear weapons led me and other Administration officials to support the idea of a full-scale invasion of Iraq, albeit not right away. The [National Intelligence Estimate's] judgment to the same effect was the real linchpin of the Bush Administration's case for an invasion.

What we have found in Iraq since the invasion belies that judgment. Saddam did retain basic elements for a nuclear-weapons program and the desire to acquire such weapons at some point, but the program itself was dormant. Saddam had not ordered its resumption (although some reports suggest that he considered doing so in 2002). In all probability Iraq was considerably further from having a nuclear weapon than the five to seven years estimated in the classified version of the NIE.

So Bush's argument that all were on board with this faulty intelligence is true -- but it is not the complete story. As Kaplan points out, the argument skirts the question of why the intelligence was faulty and in particular skirts the issue of the Bush administration's consistent efforts to shape the intelligence. As Kaplan puts it:

The controversy concerns pressure from the White House and the secretary of defense to form the judgments—that is, to make sure the agencies reached specific judgments—not to change them afterward.
Furthermore, Kaplan argues that the intelligence that did reach the Congress wasn't complete:
This is the crucial point: these Democrats did not have "access to the same intelligence." The White House did send Congress a classified National Intelligence Estimate, at nearly 100 pages long, as well as a much shorter executive summary. It could have been (and no doubt was) predicted that very few lawmakers would take the time to read the whole document. The executive summary painted the findings in overly stark terms. And even the NIE did not cite the many dissenting views within the intelligence community. ... What we didn't know—and what the Democrats in Congress didn't know either—was that many insiders did have reasons to conclude otherwise. There is also now much reason to believe that top officials—especially Vice President Dick Cheney and the undersecretaries surrounding Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon—worked hard to keep those conclusions trapped inside.
In the end, though, the now discredited reasons for invasion are only a small part of the problem -- and really a somewhat distracting part of the problem.

The larger part of the problem has become the way in which the initial failures of planning and preparation -- failures due to the fatal combination of hubris and incompetence that has now become the hallmark of the Bush Administration -- have grown into the thoroughly dispiriting mess that Iraq has become and will seemingly continue to be for the forseeable future. Why were they so completely blind to the possibility of a homegrown insurrection? Why were they so completely unable -- despite the billions pledged to rebuilding Iraq -- to ensure the basic safety and services that would have moved the sentiments of the Iraqi public in the right direction before the insurrection had a chance to gain a toehold?

As in so many other areas of what passes for public policy in the Bush Administration (environment & energy policy are quickly heading down this path) the inability to admit the possibility of any alternate futures -- other than the one inside their collective groupthink -- has led to the disaster of having no good alternatives left.


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