Why did we fight the Iraq War?
The weapons of mass-destruction were never found. Claims of Iraqi complicity in 9/11, so valiantly asserted by Vice-president Cheney, have been refuted.
What possessed our government to attack Iraq?
The answer that it was all about control of Iraqi oil continues losing plausibility. TIME Magazine for Dec 19, 2009 reported, for instance, that in the then most recent oil concessions auctions, the major contracts went to Russia and China.
But a very interesting account of the motivations behind the Iraq war has recently been offered by Andrew Bacevich, previously a professional army officer, now a professor at Boston University, and one of the most thoughtful and reasonable defense intellectual.
In “A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz” ( Harpers, March 2013) Bacevich ascribes Wolfowitz’ persistent and energetic push for an attack on Iraq to the idea that the US needed to establish its invincible military power for all the world to see.
The greatest challenges to US security, so the doctrine goes, comes from unexpected attacks such a Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The way to deter others from perpetrating such unexpected attacks on us was to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that the US is militarily extremely strong. Attacks on the US would invite terrible retaliation.
In order to prove that, the Iraq war was supposed to follow this script: After massive bombing--“shock and awe”--the Iraqi army collapsed and our troops, encountering minimal opposition, entered Baghdad quickly. President Bush did his little performance on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in front of the banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” After that the war should have been over. Iraq having been properly humiliated; the US army would return home triumphantly.
But instead, as Bacevich writes, there was
“ the insurgency, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, thousands of American lives lost and damaged, at least 125,000 Iraqis killed, and some 3 million others exiled or displaced; more than a trillion dollars squandered.”
The whole project miscarried to truly grotesque extent. The US showed itself to be armed to the teeth and yet militarily completely impotent.
How could that have happened?
Bacevich describes Wolfowitz and the people he worked with as exceptionally intelligent.
But it looks as if they also suffered from the common disease of very intelligent people: they vastly overestimated their capacities.
Wolfowitz’s project was to minimize catastrophic surprise by eliminating threats before they materialize: if the US is immensely powerful and makes that amply clear to the rest of the world, unexpected attacks are going to be less likely.
Sheer intelligence was going to overcome the randomness of human history. The brilliant experts were no longer threatened by the unexpected. The future would be made predictable. Preventive wars would make us secure.We could forestall unpredictable attacks.
But once again the excessive self-confidence of these smart men made them overlook the most obvious fact of the twenty-first century: unpredicted changes continue to happen. The future is as opaque as it always was. A prime example: warfare has changed. Conquering territory, destroying enemy armies in the field is no longer what war is all about. Terror has become a central weapon.
You can terrorize the enemy by bombing their cities and killing their citizens as all sides did in World War II. But as the attack on the Boston Marathon shows, you can do the same thing with two pressure cookers filled with nails. We spend about seven hundred billion dollars a year keeping ourselves armed. It takes a few very primitive homemade explosive devices to show how impotent we are.
It is by no means clear what, in the end, the effect of terrorist campaigns will be. But "the most powerful military in the world" has not figured out how to deal with terrorism.
The Wolfowitz doctrine was designed for a world that no longer exists. The doctrine might have been useful in the nineteenth century.
It is important to remember, especially for smart people, that we are rarely as smart as we think we are and that there is such a thing as being too smart for one's own good. Humility and modesty are rarely out of place. They are certainly not out of place when you endanger the lives of millions of people.