Like a lot of libertarians who had to put up with abuse from his more “purist” minded fellows for my support for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, I had second, third and even fourth thoughts about the whole venture. And my views on the situation are still not really settled eight years on from the start of full combat operations in 2003, and so I am still trying to reach a conclusion.
With that sort of thought in mind, a few days ago I got hold of Douglas Feith’s War and Decision, a book by a former senior Bush administration policy man at the very centre of things. Feith’s book contains absolute dynamite: links between Saddam’s regime and various terrorist groups (established as a clear fact) including al-Quaeda, and also a fair, but in its way devastating critique of the politicking, deviousness and general uselessness of the CIA. And after reading this book it occurs to me, rather like it did to writers such as Mark Steyn, that the CIA had become riddled with bureaucratic do-nothingism around the time of 9/11. There is a very good case for shutting the CIA down and rethinking how to handle such issues from a clean sheet of paper.
The book is also fatal to the reputation and judgement of Colin Powell, former Secretary of State. It also rehabilitates that of Donald Rumsfeld in certain respects, while not sparing criticism where it is due. And the book certainly does fess up to the administration’s failure to predict the scale of the insurgency, although Feith argues that one major error – encouraged by the CIA and the likes of Paul Bremer – was not moving fast enough to get Iraqis, both “external” and internal, into the government of Iraq post-invasion. By acting as an “occupier”, Feith says, the US gave opponents valuable propaganda. He’s got a good a point: consider that one of the smart moves by Churchill et al in 1944 was to get the Free French involved in the invasion of Normandy and subsequent entry into Paris. Getting the Iraqis to have “ownership” of the liberation of that tormented country would have been a smart move. It never really happened. And part of the reason for that was an almost pathological distrust of expat Iraqis by Powell, the CIA and other anti-neocons. This is fascinating stuff I had not really been aware of before. Another big error is over the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction: Feith argues that Bush and others gave needless ammuntion to fairweather hawks by arguing that Saddam had large stockpiles of X or Y; rather, the problem was Saddam’s capacity and clearly proven willingness to produce such weapons and use them that was the core of the problem. The 1990s-era sanctions were fast eroding by the turn of the last century; given a few years, it is highly likely that Saddam would be able to re-start his WMD programmes and use such weapons to deter any regime from trying to make him behave, in much the same way that Iran is now dangerously close to the point where it can support terror groups with impunity.
Through it all, the central issues that remains – in terms of foreign policy and defence – is George W Bush’s “pre-emption” policy. And it is well to remember that as far as Feith and other wonks were concerned, this was not about spreading democracy at “the point of a gun”, or about some dastardly neocon project to completely reshape the Islamic world. Rather, it was about a more specific objective, and one which, in my view, is fully consistent with the libertarian principle that military force in self defence is justified. That objective is to throw jihadists and their state sponsors off-balance: by destroying their bases, cutting off funds, killing key operatives, etc. The more that jihadists have to hide, to run, and spend time playing defence, the less time they have to cause mischief.
It is pretty clear from the letters and information presented by Feith that terrorist groups were using Iraq as a haven, and with Saddam’s active blessing. It also nails the idea that because Saddam’s regime was, in some ways, a “secular” one, that meant he had no real incentive to support islamic terror against the West. As Feith says, this argument has been greatly overdone: there is plenty of reason to suppose that tactical, for-convenience-sake alliances between “secular” and religious groups can be as lethal as those between religious states and religious groups.
Anyway, having read the book, I can strongly recommend it. I leave with this quote, on page 523:
“But the largest benefit of success is avoiding the horrific costs of failure. Preventing calamities is one of the most important and least appreciated functions of government. When an evil is averted – perhaps as a result of insight, intensive effort and administrative skill – the result is that nothing happens. It is easy, after the fact, for critics to ignore or deprecate the accomplishment. Political opponents may scoff at the effort as unnecessary, citing the absence of disaster as proof that the problem could not have been very serious to begin with. After the Cold War, some commentators argued that the West’s victory was no big deal because the Soviet Union’s demise proved that the communist empire wasn’t much of a power after all. Likewise, because the United States has not suffered a large-scale terrorist attack since 9/11, some commentators have belittled the challenge of jihadist terrorism as overblown and ridiculed the description of it as “war”. And since Saddam has been overthrown, there are critics who speak dismissively of the danger he posed.”