My responses to CNN hit piece against President Bush
My response to the author:
Professor Zelizer, I disagree with you on several points. I'll focus on one point here: your analysis is flawed by crediting Bush with harmful effects of Obama's policy decisions where he changed course from Bush.I also engaged in a comment thread:
Our Iraq mission was trending as a success at the point that Obama and Biden badly bungled the SOFA negotiation. It's as though Eisenhower somehow fumbled away Germany, Japan, and Korea, for whom US-led nation-building also required many years, at their critical turning points.
By the close of the Bush administration, the US presence in geopolitically critical Iraq was settling into a stabilizing role like our long-term presence in Europe and Asia. Obama's failure in Iraq has led to, at the very least, a stronger position for Iran, decrease of US options in the region, and the heightened risk of reversing hard-won progress in Iraq. Like Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia, an empowered liberal Iraq should have been the lynchpin of our Middle East strategy. Now, we can only hope the US did enough for Iraq to resist corrupting influences and stand on its own before our premature exit.
The Arab Spring occurred during the Obama administration. It, indeed, was likely inspired in part by Bush's liberal initiatives. However, Bush's Freedom Agenda was a long-term plan for controlled, measured progress from autocratic rule to liberal modernity in the Middle East with active US assistance. Obama scrapped Bush's Freedom Agenda in favor of "leading from behind", which turned into short-sighted ad hoc applications of US power. Predictably, with poorly and unevenly applied US assistance, the Arab Spring has degenerated from its early aspirations.
Islamic terrorism suffered a massive defeat in Iraq at the hands of the US-led coalition and the Iraqi people. Predictably, Islamic extremists have stepped in where the US has stepped away under Obama and appear to be having a resurgence in the winner-take-all chaos of the Arab Spring.
Obama's dramatic escalation of drone kills is also a departure from Bush.
The counter-terror industry consensus is that the Bush administration was very effective at breaking down Islamic terror networks and organizations. As such, no more Islamic terror attacks were successfully carried out in the US for the remainder of the Bush administration.
However, Islamic terrorism is adaptive and resilient. Because Bush administration efforts successfully reduced organized Islamic terrorism (which again, appears to be having a resurgence in the Arab Spring), anti-US Islamic terrorism has shifted to the Anwar al-Awlaki brand of self-actualizing 'lone wolf' attacks. As such, there has been an upsurge of self-actualized Islamic terrorist attacks during the Obama administration.
The Boston Marathon attacks can't be credited to the Bush administration. They happened 4+ years after the Bush administration within a shift in anti-US Islamic terrorism that evolved on Obama's watch. The drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki shows the Obama administration identified that shift in Islamic terrorism. The question is whether homeland security under the Obama administration failed to adapt sufficiently to the shift.
Comment. My response:
Bush made the right call on Iraq. If you're against a last chance for Saddam to comply, then your only alternatives are maintaining an indefinite toxic status quo or freeing a noncompliant Saddam. Keep in mind that a founding reason for al Qaeda in the 1990s was our indefinite toxic status quo in Iraq where we were rendered effectively complicit with Saddam's harm of the Iraqi people.Comment. My response:
Iraq's guilt was established and presumed as the basis of the Gulf War ceasefire and UNSC resolutions on weapons, humanitarian, and terrorism standards. Saddam's noncompliance was established. There was no burden on the US and UN to prove Iraq's guilt. The burden was entirely on Saddam to prove his compliance. Over 12 years, Saddam was given multiple chances to pass. In 2002-03, he failed for the last time.
Saddam did not even try to pretend compliance with the humanitarian standards, which were equally triggers for war as the weapons standards, which he also failed. Saddam was in fact guilty.
The alternative choices were not better. The default was an indefinite toxic,
provocative, harmful, expensive stalemate. The only other alternative was to free a noncompliant Saddam.
It's not the US presence that has caused pain in Iraq. First, the pain in Iraq was caused by Saddam. After Saddam, the US was dedicated to peace operations in Iraq, just as we've built lasting peace in other countries we've occupied. But great pain was caused by the Islamic terrorist onslaught in Iraq. To our credit, we honored our promise and refused to abandon the Iraqi people to the terrorists.
Again, if you're opposed to giving Saddam a last chance to comply, then would you have maintained the toxic status quo indefinitely or freed a noncompliant Saddam?
Again, it was not the US or UN's place to prove Iraq was guilty. Iraq was established and presumed guilty as the basis of the ceasefire and UNSC resolutions. The burden was *entirely* on Saddam to prove his rehabilitation. With Saddam, we had to be sure.Comment. My response:
The argument of Iraq's innocence is based on information after the fact and unrelated to the relevant procedure. In fact, Saddam was guilty.
The justifications for OIF aren't retroactive. See the 2002 Congressional authorization and UNSC resolution 1441. The baseline case against Saddam was diverse. The threat of Saddam was part and parcel with the 12 year course with Iraq.
Moreover, the case against Saddam was mature by Operation Desert Fox in 1998 when Clinton set regime change as the solution for the Iraq problem, labeled Saddam a "clear and present" danger irrespective of possession of WMD, and declared Saddam had failed his "final chance".
Saddam posed a threat distinct from other nations because his belligerence combined with his repeated crossing of red lines under dire warning that other actors have not crossed. Saddam showed he could not be treated like a rational actor.
The US was also in an a uniquely direct and harmful relationship with Iraq that needed to be resolved, especially in the wake of 9/11. Keep in mind that the most visible, provocative, expensive, and dangerous part of our pre-OIF mission in Iraq - the no-fly zones - were enforcing humanitarian standards, not weapons standards. Clinton intervened in the Balkans on humanitarian grounds before Bush and Obama intervened in Libya on humanitarian grounds after Bush. Humanitarian grounds were included in the Iraq intervention.
9/11 merely emphasized and highlighted the existing terrorism part of the case against Saddam, which had dated to the earliest UNSC resolutions on Iraq. Clinton also acted on Saddam's terrorist threat. Saddam didn't need al Qaeda to be a terrorist; he had demonstrated his own capacity and willingness to use unconventional warfare.
To be accurate, "imminent" threat was not cited. Actually, Bush said that for an unconventional threat like terrorism, we cannot afford to wait for indications of an imminent threat, like we can for a conventional threat. In a terrorist attack, "imminent" often means the attack just happened.
The bottom-line is that Bush's case against Saddam didn't trigger the war. It only led to the application of the final compliance test under credible threat for Saddam. Saddam held the power to prevent war by complying fully on the weapons, humanitarian, and terrorism standards. Instead, Saddam refused to comply again on standards that he could and should have met in 1991.
So, facing the Iraq problem in the context of the decision point in Bush's shoes, if you would not have given a final chance to Saddam to comply, then would you have maintained the toxic status quo indefinitely (in the wake of 9/11 no less) or freed a noncompliant Saddam?
Again, Saddam was established and presumed guilty on WMD as one of the several bases of the Gulf War ceasefire and UNSC resolutions. We don't ignore the other threats. But starting with the Gulf War, our enforcement in Iraq, our relationship with Iraq, and the threat of Saddam were unique.Comment. My response:
Again, the argument including the image of a 'mushroom cloud' wasn't describing a conventional "imminent" threat but rather explaining the urgency of resolving the Iraq problem in light of the unconventional threat. If the argument was based on an imminent threat, then Saddam wouldn't have been given a final chance to comply under credible threat of ground invasion and regime change. Instead, an imminent threat would have compelled an immediate invasion with no compliance test.
When Clinton bombed Iraq in 1998 as the penultimate enforcement measure to ground invasion, he didn't claim knowledge of Iraqi WMD. Rather, Clinton's reason was that our lack of knowledge of Iraq's WMD as a result of Saddam's noncompliance was equal to Iraq's guilt on WMD due to the foundational presumption of guilt.
So, if Bush lacked knowledge on Iraqi WMD, then that only takes him to the lower bar that triggered Clinton's military enforcement on Iraq. Again, Saddam also had to meet humanitarian and other standards as well as the weapons standards.
The US was the primary enforcement authority on Iraq starting with the Gulf War and that role deepened through the Clinton administration. By the close of the Clinton administration, the US was inextricably entangled with Saddam. After years of struggling with Saddam, Clinton finally set regime change as the solution for the Iraq problem if Saddam failed to comply.Comment. My response:
We were going to crash land with Saddam one way or the other, with or without 9/11. We could either take control of that crash landing or allow Saddam to decide the manner of the crash landing.
The Iraq mission did cost too much for a number of reasons that are correctable from practical, political, and policy standpoints. We did underestimate the capacity of Islamic terrorists to slaughter Muslims in Iraq and sabotage the nascent state. But keep in mind, too, those "trillions" (when did that become plural?) include possibly exaggerated extrapolated costs that aren't used to calculate costs of other wars.
What did we get for it? We achieved Clinton's goals for Iraq, ie, Iraq in compliance with the ceasefire and UNSC resolutions, Iraq at peace with its neighbors and the international community, and Iraq internally reformed. The 1st 2 goals were firmly met. The 3rd goal was met but left shakier than we like.
I'm impressed with how Saddam nostalgics have rehabilitated him in death into a reliable American agent for peace in the Middle East. Touting Saddam as the solution for Iran is like saying we should have propped up Hitler in order to deal with the Soviet Union for us (an argument that was made before WW2). Hitler + USSR was the worst of WW2, not peace in our time.
Saddam was not the answer.
I agree that it would have been better for the US to build up Iraq more so Iraq would be less vulnerable to Iranian encroachment. Unfortunately, after the great gains of the Counterinsurgency "Surge" and Anbar Awakening, the glue holding together the stabilizing pluralistic Iraq wasn't dry yet when Obama and Biden badly bungled the SOFA negotiation. As with the Arab Spring and elsewhere, wherever the US steps away, an ambitious competitor will naturally step in.
As to your last point, the Iraqis tried their "Arab Spring" in 1991 when they answered Bush the father's call to revolt. Then despite that our forces were still on the ground, we stood down and allowed Saddam to slaughter them.
Can you imagine the utter trust that the Iraqi people had in America to risk their lives against the psychopathic tyrant on the mere word of the US president? Yet despite being in position to help them, we betrayed them. Bush the father's short-sighted cost/benefit calculation in 1991 greatly damaged our standing at the historical point that our world-changing influence and reputation were at their highest.
Set aside the other justifications, and the US owed the Iraqi people a tremendous debt of honor for our betrayal in 1991. By resisting the calls to abandon the Iraqi people to the terrorists like we once abandoned them to Saddam's wrath, George W Bush restored some of the American honor lost by his father.
"Let me be clear on what the U.S. objectives are: The United States wants Iraq to rejoin the family of nations as a freedom-loving and lawabiding member. This is in our interest and that of our allies within the region. The United States favors an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home. I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq's history or its ethnic or sectarian makeup. Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else. The United States looks forward to a democratically supported regime that would permit us to enter into a dialogue leading to the reintegration of Iraq into normal international life."
"Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner."
Iraq in compliance and at peace with its neighbors and international community, and no more Saddam is hardly a "major geo-political disaster". Our troops are justified to be proud of their extraordinary achievements in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom was an honorable mission and one of the best grounded missions in terms of law and policy in our history.
Iraq, however, does represent a lost opportunity. It's a tragedy that we left Iraq prematurely, which runs counter to our nation's tradition of securing the peace after war. Due to the success of the Counterinsurgency "Surge" where Americans and Iraqis had together defeated the terrorists, Iraq was finally on the right track. Bush gave Obama a winning hand in Iraq, and Obama wanted to stay. At the point that Obama and Biden bungled the SOFA negotiation, serving in Iraq was even turning routine for our troops, something like serving in Korea.
Had we stayed in Iraq, a progressive pluralistic Iraq with our active partnership would have been a positive force in the region, a game-changer. But Obama lost the game-changing opportunity that was so hard earned by Americans and Iraqis alike. Because we left Iraq prematurely, Iranian influence has grown there and the situation in Iraq has deteriorated.
Obama's bungling of the SOFA negotiation with Iraq and the confused, uneven "lead from behind" policy that replaced Bush's Freedom Agenda have lost ground on the hard-earned and, yes, expensive progress that Bush handed to Obama.