If it’s true, as I wrote below, that the public case for the Iraq War was built on a series of half-truths, misdirections and lies, it’s fair to ask, just what was the point then? And what did President and Dick Cheney and everyone else think was going to happen after the invasion? It’s a good question. Let me try to answer it.
On the question of weapons of mass destruction, I think the war architects really did think there must be some continuing chemical weapons program or perhaps some biological stuff. Saddam Hussein really had made no effort to deny that he had these. And there’s good evidence that he intentionally acted as if he did to provide some continuing deterrent against Iran and others. In any case, it was reasonable to think he had continued to do that since he had done it before and going much further than most regimes that have dabbled in these weapons, he’d actually used them on his country’s own citizens. It was certainly possible that the regime had someone brainstorming about ways to get nuclear material. So maybe they were going to luck out, as it were. But fundamentally, I think they were confident they’d find some chemical weapons. And that would check the box. Not finding any nuclear program wasn’t going to be a problem.
On the chaos that engulfed the country not long after the invasion, I think this was much more a matter of extreme negligence and self-deception – but with one exception. The architects of the war knew that equipping the invasion and occupation in a way that would ultimately prove necessary would dramatically up the costs of the endeavor and make it a much tougher sell. So let’s chalk this up to self-interested self-deception and culpable negligence. The key was to get in and make it happen, create a fait accompli. Once that happened there’d be no easy getting out. So the key was simply to get it, create a fact on the ground.
Many people say well it was for oil or it was for Israel. But not really. Obviously our entire focus on the Middle East, it’s centrality to US national security policy going back decades is overwhelmingly about oil. And American oil companies were eager to get into Iraq after the war. So in that sense, sure it was about oil. But it’s not like the country or these companies were in a driving need for more oil or more access to oil. The argument doesn’t hold up as a true motivator to the idea.
Similarly with Israel, it’s certainly the case that many of the wars key architects saw and see much of the Middle East through the prism of Israel and were eager to break the back of one of the Arab world’s most rejectionist regimes. But remember that the Israeli government was actually highly skeptical and wary of the whole enterprise. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the ultimate hawk, didn’t try to lobby against it per se but told President Bush in no uncertain terms that it was a very risky idea with possibly dangerous consequences. The main issue in Sharon’s minds was that decapitating Saddam’s regime would remove the key counterweight to Iran, which of course is basically what happened. So yes, Israel was part of the picture. But the idea of a war to protect or strengthen Israel just doesn’t add up in the hackneyed way you often hear it described by many critics.
I wrote about just this question about a month before the invasion was actually launched. This was after reporting on the story, and shifting my own ideas back and forth a couple times, over a period of about eighteen months. There were so many different rationales, each distinct, often contradictory, one interchanging with another as the news cycle changed, that it eventually seemed clear to me that none of these were really reasons. They were rationales – arguments you devise (convincing or not) to make the case for something you want to do, rather than the actual motivating force behind your desire. So why did they want to do it? At some level I think it had simply become an idee fixe for many of these people. Because for many of them, when I would have frank conversations with them, they had a difficult time getting past the rationales, even in what I think were off-the-record and unguarded conversations. The real underlying reason, to the extent there was one, was the notion of creating a transformative event, a democratizing wave in the region that would get away from managing and on to ‘solving’ deep and lingering obstacles to American power.
In this sense, chaos wasn’t a problem. It was actually the goal. They just ended up getting a very different kind of chaos from what they expected – not a wave of destabilization pushing out from Iraq and crashing over enemy states in Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia but one crashing in on the architects and the US and its military itself. I explored the idea in some depth in this 2003 article in The Washington Monthly, ‘Practice to Deceive‘.