Bush’s Willing Enablers
Who outside the administration is to blame for the turmoil in Iraq? The list is long.
President George W. Bush is responsible for the ongoing misadventure in Iraq, and likely nothing could have stopped his administration from pursuing its long-standing plans against now deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But placing the responsibility solely on Bush’s shoulders is too simple and even potentially dangerous. Too simple, because it blurs the responsibilities of those outside the administration who contributed to an environment where bad new ideas were embraced just as quickly as good proven ones were shed. The promise that a tsunami of democracy would spread from Iraq to its neighbors, for example, was as poorly scrutinized as the notion that the Geneva Conventions need not "apply precisely" in Iraq. Blaming Bush alone is also dangerous, because without a clearer understanding of how this permissive intellectual environment emerged, a future U.S. administration could again exploit the public fear instilled by terrorism to let unfounded assumptions guide ill-fated interventions abroad.
In the coming years, challenges similar to those posed by Iraq will surely surface elsewhere. The world hardly lacks for tyrants willing to challenge Washington, and Iraq will not be the last instance in which foreign powers oust a dangerous regime or in which outsiders play some governing role as a collapsed state regains its footing. Moreover, further terrorist attacks in the United States remain probable. These factors may recreate a public mood where the urge to "do something" weakens the quality control of a superpower’s policy decisions.
Today, few doubt that the Bush administration’s postwar planning was disastrous. Insiders’ books, congressional testimony, and recent investigative reporting indicate that the miscalculations resulted from a toxic combination of ideology, terrorism, and an incurious president who allowed Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies to implement their unrealistic policies.
But this view ignores how many potentially influential players seemed cowed into submission or into ineffectual opposition to the whims of the White House. It is not just that intelligence agencies were too willing to confirm the "facts" their political bosses wanted to hear. Many leaders of the Democratic Party were too frightened of appearing "soft on terror" and thus inclined to sign political and military blank checks to an administration prone to overdraft. Blinded by partisanship, congressional Republicans were too subservient to the White House’s wishes, even those that contradicted long-standing GOP principles, such as fiscal restraint. Fearing exclusion from the corridors of power, U.S. diplomats were too quick to accept the notion that negotiated approaches on Iraq had run their course. Some journalists were so deferential to official sources that their reporting felt almost stenographic. Bush’s failures in Iraq were also facilitated by gullible editorial writers, ratings-hungry television news executives, talk show hosts eager for publicity, and think tank experts addicted to the limelight.
Even the normally vociferous community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was oddly restrained. Any government that allocates multibillion-dollar contracts the way the Bush administration did in Iraq would immediately incur the wrath of such NGOs as Transparency International and other anti-corruption organizations. But, in this instance, these groups’ criticisms were relatively mild. The human rights community, while expressing concern over the Guantánamo detainees and some aspects of the war, appeared conflicted and introspective regarding an initiative aimed at ousting a genocidal torturer. It took the horror show of Abu Ghraib to finally eliminate such uncharacteristic lethargy.
The leaders of the nations that joined the U.S.-led coalition were either too timid in voicing their doubts or completely ineffective in steering the Bush administration away from decisions they found questionable. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former U.N. ambassador and former special representative for Iraq, recently noted that the British supported Bush in part because "the damage to world diplomacy if America went solo was too awful to contemplate." Add British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British government to the list of prime enablers; alas, their support for Bush did not render the damage to international diplomacy any less awful.
Ironically, even the leaders who confronted Bush did so in ways that only emboldened U.S. actions. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder opposed Bush so clumsily and in such blatant pursuit of domestic political interests that their opposition to the war became a caricature too easy to ridicule and ignore. Indeed, in some segments of the U.S. public, German and French opposition only legitimized Bush’s moves. The same applies to the Arab states and the Arab League in particular, whose secretary general’s calls for immediate elections in Iraq displayed a sudden democratic fervor that the group had never applied to any of its members.
But perhaps the ultimate enabler — or the factor that made the other enablers possible — was September 11, 2001. Americans felt the attacks like a blow to the head: numbing and disorienting. September 11 was so painful, surprising, and threatening that confusion and suspension of disbelief became natural reactions. In the United States, the attacks fed the widespread notion that "business as usual" in U.S. foreign policy was no longer an option. But relinquishing business as usual also came to mean renouncing fundamental principles that never should have been abandoned. The tenets that no one can be detained without charges for indeterminate periods of time, that risky military interventions work better with meaningful international support, and that torture and democracy do not mix — all were cast aside as obsolete notions for a nation fighting evildoers in the global war on terror.
But neither the evildoers nor the war on terrorism will go away soon. What needs to go is the tragic alchemy that allows time-tested principles to be too easily discarded in favor of bad, ideologically driven policies. New approaches to fighting new threats are surely needed. But they should not be embraced at the expense of the very principles that make wars worth fighting.