Again and again we hear the refrain that this single instance of mentioning discredited intelligence about Iraqi uranium purchases pales in comparison to the much broader set of reasons why the United States invaded Iraq.
In one sense this is certainly false. The possibility that such a hostile and threatening regime could acquire nuclear weapons is sui generis. You simply can't compare it to this or that many liters of VX nerve gas or botulinum toxin. Seemingly strong evidence that Iraq was well on its way to producing nuclear weapons isn't just one "data point" as Condi Rice put it recently.
In another sense, though, it is just one small question or small issue. And if it were taken in isolation or without a broader context, it would hardly be generating the intensity of criticism and scrutiny that it is. The reason it is generating this level of scrutiny is that this one instance of bad faith is of a piece with so much of what went on in the build up to war.
It would be one thing if the administration had pursued this war because of weapons of mass destruction and, in so doing, pumped up the evidence to strengthen the case. Perhaps, one might hypothesize, they knew there was a lot of chemical and biological weapons production underway and the beginnings of a major push for nuclear weapons and, to seal the deal, said the nuclear program was further along than it was.
But this greatly understates the scope of the problem. Not only was the WMD issue (and the allied issue of Iraq's connection to al Qaida) systematically exaggerated, the entire WMD issue -- and the nexus to non-state terrorist groups like al Qaida -- wasn't even the main reason for the war itself. So the case for war amounted to one dishonesty wrapped inside another -- not quite Churchill's "riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma" but not that far off it either.
Now some people on the left are saying, well, the real reason was the possession of Iraqi oil. Or, the real reason was to seal the 2002 election or the 2004 election. Various other real reasons have been and are being proffered. But these are at best secondary or tertiary reasons. Karl Rove certainly exploited the Iraq debate and the war on terror to the hilt in 2002 -- and to great effect. But he was only taking advantage of a situation that had come about for reasons entirely different from his own narrow political ones.
Now, the series of neoconservative rationales for invading Iraq well predate 9/11. And as I've written before I think the desire to achieve this goal -- overthrowing Saddam Hussein -- became such a guiding star for many regime-change advocates that the desire become the parent of the rationale. This was one of the reasons why there was, in the end, such a curious multiplicity of rationales for doing it.
But over time after 9/11 one overriding theory of the war did take shape: it was to get America irrevocably on the ground in the center of the Middle East (thus fundamentally reordering the strategic balance in the region), bring to a head the country's simmering conflict with its enemies in the region, and kick off a democratic transformation of the region which would over time dissipate the root causes of anti-American terrorism and violence: autocracy, poverty and fanaticism.
That is why we are in Iraq today. That is the theory of this war. I have little doubt that many in the administration and in certain think-tanks in DC who really don't like much of what they've been reading on this website recently will have little to disagree with in that description.
It's important to note that this theory of the war actually does have a lot to do with stopping terrorism and the generalized instability of region -- but in a way that is almost infinitely more complex than the Saddam-WMD-hand -off-to-al-Qaida idea that the administration pushed in the build-up to the war.
It's much more complicated, much more complex, and vastly more difficult to achieve. It's not that the main war-hawks didn't believe there were WMD or that rooting them out wouldn't have been a great coup for US national security. But it is almost as if administration war-hawks told the public a vastly simplified, fairy-tale version of the Iraq war's connection to stopping terrorism and justified this benign deception because the story contained a deeper truth, almost in the way we tell children similar stories because their minds aren't advanced enough to grasp or process all the factual details connected to the lessons or messages we're trying to convey. Got all that? Good.
Of course, one might also say that the public might have intuited that fighting this sort of war was too risky, improbable and costly than anything it wanted to get involved in.
(I made this argument in an article I wrote in early March and which appeared in the Washington Monthly during the first week of the war. I'd certainly change some things about that piece were I to write it again. But not many.)
As I wrote then, and in several earlier articles, I think this theory of the war contained several penetrating insights into America's position in the Middle East and the long-term losing game we may be playing by identifying ourselves with corrupt autocracies which are in many ways themselves failed states which simply have yet to collapse.
But an insight or even a broad strategy is not a plan -- a fact which we're now seeing played out before our eyes. The fact that the administration never leveled with the public -- or in some ways even itself -- about this shielded it from the kind of scrutiny which would have revealed just how little the administration had thought through the sheer complexity of what it was trying to accomplish. This created the need to goose up secondary issues like WMD to gain a public rationale for the war. If you're wondering why so little planning seems to have gone into what on earth we were going to do once we took the place over it's because so little of the debate leading up to the war had anything to do with these questions or for that matter what we were actually trying to achieve by invading the country.
Now, a few points about the dishonesty at the center of all this. It's bad just on principle not to fundamentally level with the public about why you're getting into a war and just what sort of war you're getting into. Quite apart from that, however, doing so gets you into some practical difficulties. If you don't level with the public that you're getting into a very long-term, extremely costly enterprise you may find that your tough talk about having the staying power to finish the job isn't matched by public sentiment, or that you face a backlash over getting the country into far more than you led voters to believe. You may find that the public really isn't on board for what you're trying to accomplish. And that's a big problem if the public doesn't have the staying power and you have to leave the task half-finished, because this is one of those things that is better not to have tried at all than leave half-done.
So, why is this little matter of the uranium statements such a big deal? Because it is a concrete, demonstrable example of the administration's bad faith in how it led the country to war. To date that bad-faith has been all too apparent on many fronts. But the administration has cowed much of the press into remaining silent or simply not scrutinizing various of the administration's arguments for the war. And success makes up for many sins. No doubt it's painful for the president's partisans to see this stuff dug into. And it produces glee for Democrats who think -- rightly or wrongly -- that it gives them a potent issue to use against the president in the 2004 elections. But quite apart from partisan considerations on either side, we're never going to figure out what we're doing in Iraq, do it well, or accomplish anything good for the future security of the United States unless and until we start talking straight about why we're there, what we need to accomplish, and how we're going to do it.