The Bush Presidency and Iraq
by David D. Newsom
Mindful that one of the primary interests of the Miller Center is the American Presidency, I am amending my title to "Reflections on Iraq and the Presidency.
The current situation in Iraq has been well covered by previous speakers. My intention this morning is to suggest aspects of the policies of the Bush Presidency worthy of study by scholars of the Miller Center and other academic institutions. I believe this will be a tempting subject of study for some time to come; the Bush presidency with its strategy of preemption has broken new ground in foreign policy, ground that will long remain controversial. How will history judge it? Ultimately documents will emerge and, perhaps, even tapes: WMDs, words of mass disclosure.
The United States is now deeply involved in Iraq. Whatever our views about the initiation of the war, we should all hope that the coalition has the will and the resources to create a more stable Iraq. To walk away before we have finished would be a serious blow to US influence in the region and an invitation to continuing conflict. But we should not be deterred from a considered assessment of how we got into this conflict - and what it may say about the vulnerability of our system to a well-organized group with a determined agenda. Even the conservative columnist, George Will, in The Washington Post of June 22 said, "But unless America's foreign policy is New Age therapy to make the public feel mellow, feeling good about the consequences of an action does not obviate the need to assess the original rationale for the action."
I make no claim to being an expert on the Presidency, although as an American diplomat, I have observed eight presidents at various degrees of distance. Neither do I claim special expertise on Iraq, although I served in that country many years ago and have maintained contact with Iraqi friends, including one now on the Governing Council in Baghdad. I suspect I have as much knowledge of the country as do some of those currently directing our policy.
Every President, certainly in recent decades, has faced the pressure to react to a present or perceived threat to U.S. interests. They have justified their actions with varying degrees of candor. Franklin Roosevelt, in the Destroyers for Britain deal began preparing an unenthusiastic nation for war in Europe. Lyndon Johnson built his case for Vietnam on the disputed Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Neither is regime change as an objective new. During the Cold War, Presidents from Eisenhower to the first President Bush used covert action to support anti-Soviet groups or regime changes in Cuba, Iran, Congo, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Angola, Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan - with mixed results. The Bay of Pigs and the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran are long remembered. The US support for the Afghan groups opposing the Russian invasion in the 1970s was a contributing factor in the creation of the Al Qaeda network -- the law of unintended consequences.
The Bush administration, however, has added a new chapter by invading a sovereign country and, without international legitimacy, launching a war to preempt a threat. In the words of Joseph Cirincione, an arms proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment, "This is a bold experiment..one of the most radical political science experiments of all time. This is the first test of the idea that preventive war can stop proliferation."
Changed world circumstances provided a unique opportunity for this experiment in preemptive war.
Although the administration has spoken of a "coalition of the willing," the United States has been virtually alone with its British allies. Although at least three think tank studies on the needs for post- war Iraq emphasized the importance of broad international, including UN, roles, President Bush and many of his advisors reflect an antagonism toward the United Nations that is shared by many in the United States. Why, they said, should a group of small, weak nations curb actions that we consider to be in our national interest? Under pressure from Prime Minister Blair of Great Britain and Secretary of State Powell, the President, with obvious reluctance, took the question of Iraq to the United Nations Security Council -- a body the president considered little more than an "irrelevant debating society." When members of the Council insisted on an extension of the UN inspection process and a further resolution authorizing force, the Bush presidency decided to proceed without such authority -- with Britain and Spain as allies.
The bitter controversy in the Security Council brought into sharp focus differences with traditional allies, France and Germany. As James Rubin notes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Europeans, troubled by the shifting rationales for war, felt that, whatever Saddam Hussein did or the UN found, the United States was determined to go to war.
One of the ironies of this period was that, at the same time the administration was stressing the objective of bringing democracy to Iraq, they reacted to the point of ridicule to the decision of three countries, France, Germany and Turkey, that claimed, on this issue, to be responsive to their electorates.
The secretary of defense drew a distinction between Old Europe and New Europe -- those nations that had emerged from the Soviet empire. Europeans have more recent experience of war on their own soil and are currently, in the European Union, reaping the benefits of international cooperation. They took strong exception to our criticism of their stand.
As of now, the Bush presidency, despite rising troubles in Iraq, appears divided over any further UN resolution that might guarantee more external help if such a resolution would mean a diminution of US and British control.
For many years, including the period of the Cold War, prominent voices in think tanks, the Congress, and the media have advocated a more aggressive use of U.S. military power. To them, Washington had been passive too long. It was time for the America to act -- not just react. In their view a strong display of U.S. might would lead to greater respect for America and its values and greater cooperation by others against "rogue" states. The United States, they posit, is an exceptional nation and, with its military power, it should be able to eliminate those who challenge its world vision and reshape the world. In a theme expressed in the National Security Strategy study of September 2002, the United States should "not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively."
The moral dimension was also important. As Gail Chaddock wrote in The Christian Science Monitor on April 9, "At the heart of their world view is a conviction that American power and democratic values can be a force for good -- even if applied without the blessing of international institutions or local cultures.
There were those in the administration, also, who wanted to show that the United States had overwhelming power and was prepared to use it. In The New York Times of April 29, Paul Krugman refers to an ABC report that states the real reason for the war was that the administration "wanted to make a statement." Krugman quotes further, "Officials acknowledge that Saddam had all the requirements to make him, from their standpoint, the perfect target."
Such voices have been responding to a sense of frustration and national humiliation felt by many in the country after terrorist attacks against US targets in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and East Africa. September 11 added to this national trauma.
During the past ten years, the focus of these voices has been on regime change in Iraq. Frustrated by the inconclusive war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and in close collaboration with a group of Iraqi exiles, these advocates succeeded in gaining passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1993, authorizing U.S. financial support for opponents of Saddam Hussein. In the Bush presidency those representing this point of view have been placed in influential positions, particularly in the Department of Defense and the office of the vice president and have been instrumental in leading the nation into the preemptive war against Iraq, a goal that many had from inauguration day.
They have found a sympathetic leader in President Bush who seems genuinely to have been convinced that, with Saddam Hussein's past record and even the remote possibility that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists, he had no alternative but to take action, including war. He had little faith that the prolonged UN inspections would protect U.S. interests. Few in Congress or the media challenged his rationale.
[Note: Central Command received orders from the President within one week of the 9/11 attacks to prepare war plans for the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Reportedly, the President's immediate decision to prepare for a war against Iraq was based on his belief after briefings from the Department of Defense that there was a strong likelihood of a hand off of WMDs from Iraq to terrorist groups. President Bush acted out of fear of further attacks against the United States even before the dust had settled in New York City or at the Pentagon.]
After the war began, their cause was helped by an outpouring of patriotism and empathy with the troops in the field.
In early April, a friend in Britain, concerned at the direction of U.S. policy, e-mailed me, asking, "What is going on in the US?" I replied that our friends in Europe were witnessing a peaceful coup d'etat.
The goals of these policy makers are not inconsistent with traditional primary objectives of the United States in the Middle East -- access to the resources of the region on reasonable terms and security for the state of Israel. They have put forward a vision of a changed, democratic Iraq that would create the momentum for democracy throughout the region, including Syria and Iran. They have prophesied, further, that, with the destruction of the Baath regime in Iraq, Israel, freed of one of its principal enemies, would be more likely to make peace with the Palestinians.
There is no doubt that the bulk of Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and would welcome a freer society. But the Iraqis are also a people who have had regimes imposed upon them by medieval conquerors and, in modern history, by the Turks and the British. They may want democracy, but not an imposed American democracy.
The zealous pursuit of goals that presidents and their advisers believe to be in the national interest is not unique to the Bush presidency. Other presidents have sought like-minded advisers and demanded their discipline, loyalty, and discretion.
Certainly others, too, with their personal prestige and political future at stake, have been tempted to find intelligence that will support their predetermined conclusions.
Presidents, too, have minimized, to the greatest extent possible, the involvement of Congress in their decision making. Just look at the long history of resistance to the War Powers' Act.
By astute word processing White Houses have sought to maintain support for an administration's policies as one or more policy assumptions were proven questionable.
The Bush presidency has followed each of these precedents with, perhaps, greater determination and effectiveness than most. Even that determination has not prevented some of the deep disputes within the administration that have marked other presidencies -- particularly between those in the Department of State and other elements of the foreign policy team. Mistrusting both the State Department and the CIA, the Defense Department established its own intelligence unit to find data supporting the decision on war.
The debate over the use of questionable intelligence will continue, probably long after this administration has passed into history. Inevitably, in most administrations, elements of the foreign policy teams, driven by their own interests and points of view, have differed over the interpretation and use of information.
This situation is not new. Intelligence often comes to the policy maker in edited snippets with qualifications obscured. Time and pressure may not allow for a lengthy consideration of the validity of the source and content. But deliberate doctoring of intelligence -- or ignoring doubts raised by competent advisors - is a dangerous practice. As post-Vietnam scholars looked at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, so scholars will look at the use of the doubtful information on yellow cake uranium from Niger.
Much of the intelligence has reportedly come from Iraqi exiles. Those who have left their country obviously have much to offer another nation planning an occupation -- in knowledge of the country and the customs and in language skills. But some exiles may have been so long out of the country that they may be out of touch with local realities. And some have their own ambitions and agendas. The information they provide may be of doubtful reliability -- slanted to fit their objectives. It will be interesting to examine, at some future time, the degree to which some of the information now questioned about weapons of mass destruction and the readiness of Iraqis to welcome Americans may have come from exiles. I have found in my previous experience in the Middle East a tendency of people to tell us what we want to hear. I have found, also, in Washington, that many are vulnerable to the well-dressed English-speaking exile who also tells Americans what they want to hear.
The question of intelligence is closely linked to that of the choice of advisers -- of those who provide assessments to the President.
Evidence is certainly mounting that the Bush presidency was ill prepared for the post-war realities of Iraq. Those experts who spoke of the deep divisions, tribal and ethnic tensions, and the historic resentment of Iraqis toward occupying powers were either not heard or brushed aside. More acceptable to the President's advisers was the counsel of two academic voices, those of Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton and Fuad Ajami of Johns Hopkins. They insisted that the Islamic world was waiting for an assertion of American power. It was Professor Ajami who was quoted before the war as saying that Iraqis would welcome the American forces with "kites and boom boxes."
Again, the Bush team would not be unique in seeking those advisers who will support the predetermined views of the administration. In this case they were looking for an optimistic assessment of Iraq's acceptance of the U.S. presence and tutelage and of the availability of the proceeds of Iraqi oil to pay for the occupation. But many of those Americans who are knowledgeable about Iraq and the region were not called upon.
One scholar, part of a network of 300 Middle Eastern experts in the United States, told me that a survey of this group revealed that not one had been consulted by U.S. authorities as they planned and executed their war against Iraq.
Suspicion of -- if not antagonism toward -- Middle East experts in the State Department -- the Arabists -- has long existed in Washington where they are considered by some to be too pro-Arab and unfriendly toward Israel. A number of Arabic speaking Foreign Service officers were recruited to assist in post-war Iraq, but many were sent home soon after the war started, presumably because of incompatibility with the occupation leadership. The result has been a shortage of qualified interpreters and a heavy dependence on Iraqi interpreters in the administration of the occupation. In the best of circumstances heavy dependence upon local interpreters can be unwise.
One of the more remarkable expressions of the attitude expected from advisers around President Bush is found in a recent article in the July/August Foreign Policy magazine, "Rogue State Department" by Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives and a close associate of members of the current administration. [See text elsewhere in this journal.] The author sharply criticizes the State Department and the Foreign Service for not being loyal members of the Bush team. Gingrich refers to a speech he made at the American Enterprise Institute in which he argued that "the State Department was engaging in a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine Bush's foreign policy." He cites a report from State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research leaked to the Los Angeles Times that stated that "liberal democracy would be difficult to achieve[in Iraq}..Electoral democracy, were it to emerge, could well be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements." He later states, "the key to transforming the State Department's culture is the adoption of the right vision -- President Bush's vision."
If Mr. Gingrich, in his comments, is insisting that Foreign Service officers not oppose publicly opposed the president's policy, he has a point. If he is saying that Foreign Service reporting and State Department's assessments, based on the observations, judgment, and experience of such officers in the field should not challenge the assumptions of a president and his advisers, the nation is on a dangerous course, indeed.
In seeking to justify the recourse to war, the Bush presidency has clearly sought out intelligence to support three assertions:
As the passage of time has cast more and more doubt on the validity of these assumptions and the intelligence snippets produced to prove them, the administration has turned back for justification to the nature of the regime, its brutality, its violation of UN resolutions and its earlier use of poison gas against its people. But the emphasis on the immediate threat of weapons and the alleged links to Al Qaeda lasted long enough to convince Congress, in October, to vote the administration authority for the use of force against Iraq.
Few administrations, in my experience, like to be hobbled by the Congress -- even if the Congress is in the hands of their own party. The Bush presidency clearly has little enthusiasm for rushing to Capitol Hill with its problems and ideas. Although hearings on the justification for war were held by the foreign relations and armed forces committees of both houses, few public witnesses appeared and little national debate was stimulated. The inhibitions created by the post September 11 atmosphere were too strong.
Having virtually finessed the Congress on the issue of war, the administration has, since, showed great reluctance to share information on costs and exit strategies. Congress has not been a significant player in the current crisis.
In the early 1970s, I accompanied Secretary of State William Rogers on a trip to Africa. Shortly before we left, we had breakfast with President Nixon. It was the morning after former President Lyndon Johnson had discussed his tenure in office on a television program. Secretary Rogers asked the President about his reaction to Johnson's statement. I have not forgotten his words. "No one," Nixon said, "sits in this house without wondering how history will judge his actions."
It is too early, clearly, to speculate on how history will regard the presidency of George W. Bush. But that judgment will hinge, certainly, on questions relating to the decision to invade Iraq.
- Was the President unduly vulnerable to those around him who promoted regime change in Iraq?
The debate has already started. Part of it is political, as Democratic candidates, sensing a growing public doubt, are being bolder in challenging the President's policies. But much is also coming from the intellectual community. The latest issue of the journal, Foreign Affairs contains at least five articles critical of the justification for war and the treatment of allies.
We will never know how things might have turned out if we had maintained the UN sanctions and inspections. Neither do we yet know whether the more hopeful predictions of our occupation will be realized. We should keep in mind that, in the three major regional wars since World War II, wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf, presidents have had to settle for less than their hoped for objectives.
What we do know is that a preemptive, largely American war, has turned out to be far more complicated and expensive than its more ardent proponents had predicted.
We have, in effect, thrown a bomb into one of the most volatile regions of the world and history must now await the results of the explosion.