A Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Of all the things that have been said recently and during the debates on Iraq (the world is better without Saddam; he was a threat; it was a diversion...) there's one thing that president Bush says that always strikes me:

"If we stop fighting the terrorists in Iraq, they would be free to plot and plan attacks elsewhere, in America and other free nations," he said. "... If we wilt or leave, America's security will be much worse off."

Now on the surface, that seems like a reasonable case for staying the course in Iraq. But then I thought: is that a helpful thing for him to say? Isn't there something self-condemning about that fact?After all, were there terrorists plotting and planning attacks from Iraqi soil 2 years ago? Was that even a justification for going to war? And, if it's true that terrorists can now use Iraq as a planning base, or at least that there is now the danger of that happening, what has changed since two years ago? Now it is one of the main justifications for continuing the effort there. I don't see that as a very positive reflection of the Iraq plan and / or its execution.

I understand the view that the war has drawn terrorists from their hide-outs and into combat, the "fight them here so we don't have to fight them later" mentality. But in order to be valid, this view assumes that the insurgents are composed of all long-standing jihadists. The facts on the ground suggest that the insurgency is composed of these types, but also new jihadist recruits, along with Baathists, militant nationalists, and various other fanatical types unassociated with the jihadist movements.

Recently I've taken a step back and asked myself, is Iraq a necessary or effective part of the larger "War on Terror?" Here are my thoughts:

Looked at in terms of immediate state-sponsored terrorism, the answer is no, on two counts... 1) Iraq did not sponsor terrorists that directly affect us, and though it may be belied by the misnomer "war on terror," the reality is that the war is more narrowly directed at those who would use terror against us (2) Iraq did not have potential to aid enemy terrorists (except maybe monetarily), since it did not possess weapons of mass destruction, although it may have had potential to have potential to aid enemy terrorists ([and possibly also intent] this is where the justification for the war gets thin).

Looked at in terms of larger-scale and longer term reformative objectives, the Iraq war may have been an effective step in the "war on terror." It is pretty clear that a flourishing Arab democracy in the middle east would be an ideological blow to the creed of Islamic totalitarianism, which is known to feed terrorist recruitment. It's also arguable that a quick and successful strike on an antagonist country could set a valuable example for future countries who would consider sponsoring or aiding terrorism. However, the "Saddam was a terrorist" or "Saddam used terror as a tactic too" or "Saddam was a tyrant, which is basically like being a terrorist" pseudo-associative justification for the war is a rather distorted exploitation of the premise of "the war on terror." Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why the Iraq war could be prosecuted that have nothing to do with the war on terror, and frankly, I think these were more at play.

My personal take is that the neocons who tend to dominate Bush's foreign policy had their eyes on Iraq ever since the first Gulf War. If you go back and read some of their documents, you see that global preeminence was always a major goal of the neocons, and they saw control of the middle east as crucial to this end. Moreover, invading Iraq was a policy they pushed starting in the early nineties. For one the middle east largely was and still is highly undemocratic, and democratic states are easier to deal with than non-democratic states, and are more predictable in their foreign policy. Second, the middle east is the main source of the world's oil, which gives it control over the world economy, a control that pragmatic global dominance types see as too vital to be left up to the whim of countries increasingly antagonistic to the U.S. And third, Saddam was an aggressor who of all the middle east nations was the one who most overtly threatened the United States; whether he had the capability to carry out any threats is a separate issue. Also, being a proven aggressor towards other countries in the middle east, he had the potential of conquering other countries in the middles east and becoming the regional hegemon - which would make America's efforts at regional dominance significantly more difficult than if there were multiple, mutually competitive states.

And of course, Iraq was by far the most acceptable target for regime change in the middle east because of its record of international aggression, human rights abuses, international recalcitrance, and UN violations. Truly, the opportunity presented by Iraq for fulfilling the neocon vision was too good to be true: a large, secular Arab state with a dictator with a record of human rights abuses as president. If you combine this with the fact that the current president was the son of the president who led the first global coalition against Iraq during the Gulf War, and that 9/11 happened, pushing the country toward a defensive mode, then it seems practically inevitable that the Iraq War should occur.

I should make clear that I don't think the U.S. had imperial ambitions in Iraq, just the desire to change the regime to something remotely democratic, which would inevitably be much friendlier to the U.S. and less likely to dominate the entire region and thus hold a monopoly on the most important natural resource in the world. It's sad to say, but I think the entire terrorism rationale for invading Iraq is just political opportunism, and nothing more. This doesn't necessarily make it a bad choice though, just something that the American public was not ready to support on the basis of its real rationale.

If this analysis is correct, the natural implication is that the Bush administration was in fact not totally honest with the American people. But that's entirely consistent with they way they've operated in every aspect thus far. Executive privilege is sacred, loyalty and secrecy are most highly valued traits, the public is remarkably irrelevant to decision-making and kept remarkably in the dark about the debate and factors that go into making important decisions. Even in the presidential debates, the administration has permeated a "we know best" attitude and shown incredibly little tolerance for dissent.

So do I think the Iraq war was a good idea? Personally I view the whole thing as a trial in aggressive nation-building, the outcome of which will probably dictate U.S. foreign policy toward other countries which, for whatever reason, might warrant regime change in the future. Assuming that regime change is going to be a more useful tactic in the future, especially when dealing with state-sponsored terrorism, it's good that the method was tested out on Iraq where there were also independent factors that made regime change appropriate. On the other hand, the world is not America's test-tube, and I think this is made pretty clear by the unexpected level of resistance being encountered in Iraq now. I'm also against the way the Bush administration clearly was not forthright with the American people about the reasons for going to war, alternatively giving contradictory, absurd, or invalidated reasons for why it was important to go into Iraq. So I guess I'm for it in principle, but against the way it was conveyed and sold to the American people, the way the administration used 9/11 disproportionately to justify it, and the hasty way it was executed. That probably puts me closer to John Kerry's position on the war, for better or for worse. A more honest presentation, which probably would have meant that the whole process would have been slower, and that 9/11 couldn't have been used as the proximate cause, would have served the whole endeavor better I think.

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