Iraq Is Not Our Fault
Matthew Crenson, Benjamin Ginsberg, and Dean Henry deny Alasdair Roberts's claim that Iraq is the war Americans deserve.
Alasdair Roberts ("The War We Deserve," November/December 2007) draws some decidedly perverse conclusions from his observations about the paucity of public sacrifice in America's "war on terror." He suggests that the American public shares much of the responsibility for the Bush administration's bungled efforts to secure the homeland and pacify the Middle East. These ventures have been crippled, he says, by Americans' "commitment to a political philosophy that demands much from its government but asks little of its citizens." Roberts's unstated assumptions are that public sacrifice would rescue the Bush administration's military adventures from failure -- and that these enterprises are actually worthy of public sacrifice.
Alasdair Roberts ("The War We Deserve," November/December 2007) draws some decidedly perverse conclusions from his observations about the paucity of public sacrifice in America’s "war on terror." He suggests that the American public shares much of the responsibility for the Bush administration’s bungled efforts to secure the homeland and pacify the Middle East. These ventures have been crippled, he says, by Americans’ "commitment to a political philosophy that demands much from its government but asks little of its citizens." Roberts’s unstated assumptions are that public sacrifice would rescue the Bush administration’s military adventures from failure — and that these enterprises are actually worthy of public sacrifice.
Roberts acknowledges that the president never asked Americans to bear any burdens in the war on terror. After the attacks of 9/11, Bush told citizens to "go about their business" and to take vacations. In Bush’s war, there was no role for private citizens. It was not to leave a pampered public undisturbed, however, but to enhance the unilateral power of the presidency. A participatory war on terror might expose the president’s national security policy to the inconvenience of democratic responsiveness.
The Bush administration has attempted to reinvent warfare to make it less vulnerable to political pressures originating outside the commander in chief’s sphere of authority. This new form of warfare has fielded an army of private contractors and volunteers, and has substituted intense firepower, drone fighter planes, and high-tech weaponry for troops on the ground in an effort to minimize the extent to which military operations impinged on civilian society. Generals who advocated the deployment of larger forces were quietly canned. The Bush/Rumsfeld formula may not make sense as military strategy, but it succeeded in reducing the political encumbrances that restrained executive power.
Roberts’s most grievous oversight is his misrepresentation of the public response to terrorism. Public opinion polls conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 found that Americans were willing to support military action against terrorists even if it meant higher taxes, gas and oil shortages, military conscription, or economic recession. Blood donations soared, as did enlistments in AmeriCorps. Americans were ready to sacrifice. But the Bush administration squandered the opportunity.
— Matthew A. Crenson
David Bernstein Professor
Department of Political Science
Johns Hopkins University
Alasdair Roberts opines that the failure of the American people to "sacrifice on a national scale" has contributed to the United States’ bungled efforts in Iraq. What Roberts fails to explore, however, is the depth of deception perpetrated on the American public. It is this deception that led to the "acceptance" of the war on terror and convinced Americans that the invasion of Iraq was related to the struggle against al Qaeda, 9/11, and other terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil.
Prior to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration did a masterful job of conning the American people into believing that an invasion was necessary to fight terrorism. The most respected American statesman of the day, Gen. Colin Powell, announced to the world that the United States had eyewitness intelligence that Iraq was in the weapons-of-mass-destruction business. In addition, a staggering number of Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were connected in some tangible way, even though the "intelligence" supporting this premise was at best shaky — and at worst manufactured.
Whether Powell was lying outright or was duped by an overly aggressive intelligence community may never be known. Either way, the political justification for the invasion of Iraq was based almost entirely on prevarication. And it wasn’t just Americans who were deceived. In addition to the United States, Australia, Britain, Denmark, and Poland were joined by more than 30 other countries in the Iraq effort. Were the citizens of these countries likewise not prepared to "sacrifice on a national scale"? More than 3,800 American bodies have been returned from Iraq since the war began. Has any other country made such a sacrifice?
The American public may have grown overzealous about the war against terror. We may be guilty of failing to scrutinize our political and military leaders as they whipped us into a war-ready fervor. But to suggest that the invasion of Iraq was sanctioned by the American public with eyes wide open requires a drastic revision, if not a wholesale rewrite, of recent history.
— Dean Henry
Alasdair Roberts replies:
The Bush administration twisted evidence on Iraq, as Dean Henry argues, but there is more to the story than simple deception. Polls throughout the preceding decade show that Americans already supported "military action" to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Why were Americans so hawkish? The answer is partly because warfare had been reinvented. Contrary to Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg’s assumption, this was not a "Bush/Rumsfeld" policy. It was a decades-long transformation that began with the elimination of the draft, which encouraged a shift to technology-intensive combat and a massive increase in pro-military advertising. As an unintended consequence, it became easier to sell the idea of war.
At the same time, it became difficult to enact domestic measures to improve security. Fiscal constraints led to underinvestment in homeland security. Regulatory restraint made it harder to protect critical infrastructure. Liberalization led to massive cross-border flows of goods and people that are not easily monitored. Neoliberalism produced a sprawling economy that is more difficult to govern.
The writers do not challenge this idea. They do suggest that President Bush can be criticized for failing to reverse tax cuts. I agree. But we must remember that most Americans supported those cuts after 9/11. Similarly, we can criticize Bush for urging a pro-consumption policy. But it is conventional wisdom that voters will penalize politicians who fail to keep the economy humming. Do citizens bear no responsibility for what they say or how they vote?
I have no illusions about the United States’ capacity to democratize Iraq. Iraq is mired in a humanitarian disaster, triggered by U.S. intervention and aggravated by its mismanagement of the occupation. An uncounted number of Iraqi lives might be jeopardized by withdrawal, or saved by increased effort. Preserving lives placed at risk by U.S. policy is an enterprise worthy of sacrifice. There is little discussion about continued or intensified effort, however, because there is little domestic support for the investment these options would require.
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