War Is Hell

Caution and scrutiny are needed to avoid another disaster like the Iraq invasion, writes Eric Alterman.

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President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld speak at a press conference on military action against Iraq in Crawford, Texas, on August 21, 2002. (AP/Rick Bowmer)
President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld speak at a press conference on military action against Iraq in Crawford, Texas, on August 21, 2002. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Politico reports that a study by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan reported Wednesday that as much as $60 billion has been wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq on “fraud from poor planning, ineffective oversight of contractors and payments to warlords and insurgents.” It quoted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)’s statement emailed to the Associated Press that “it is disgusting to think that nearly a third of the billions and billions we spent on contracting was wasted or used for fraud.”

It may be disgusting, but it is also entirely predictable. When you go to war, especially in a country without a modern physical and financial infrastructure, you can expect to waste a great deal of money, whether on inefficient production, mistaken calculation, local corruption, or contractor failure and fraud.

Undoubtedly the $60 billion is but a fraction of the actual amount wasted, particularly when you consider that the Iraq War, according to the Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, writing with Linda Blimes, is likely to cost $3 trillion, coupled with incalculable amounts of hatred generated, terrorists inspired, civil liberties destroyed, soldiers and civilians killed and maimed, refugees left homeless, innocents tortured, secret prisons built, and so on. A mere “waste” of money would have been a blessing in comparison.

The fact is that none of the above was explicitly predictable, but all of it was within the realm of possibility. And some, if not much of it, could easily have been assumed since such things have always been a byproduct of war and always will be. War is almost always hell, after all, and it’s just the form that changes over time.

It should behoove us to recall—this week in particular—that while most of the proponents of the Iraq War tended to treat its likely outcome as the remarkably smooth and relatively costless allied victory in 1991 where Saddam Hussein’s troops barely even engaged the enemy, some people understood that war was not a Platonic exercise, or a play called “war,” but an unpredictable and frightening phenomenon and one fraught with danger.

History has by and large ignored the voices calling for a policy of prudence vis-à-vis Iraq. But Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) drew a hard line in the sand on Iraq and delivered a prescient speech at the National Press Club in September 2002. He argued that the Bush administration had not “acknowledged… the immense post-war commitment that will be required to create a stable Iraq.” Taking an eye off Afghanistan for Sen. Kennedy “could worsen not lessen the threat of terrorism.”

On September 23, 2002, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Al Gore explained to his listeners that instead of President George H.W. Bush’s prudence, his son was embarking on a policy that would squander “the international outpouring of sympathy, goodwill, and solidarity that followed the attacks of September 11.”

Preemption, moreover, was not a doctrine that the United States could keep for itself, said Gore. And so “the rule of law [would] quickly be replaced by the reign of fear—any nation that perceives circumstances that could eventually lead to an imminent threat would be justified under this approach in taking military action against another nation.”

A young African American Illinois state senator made a similar argument at a rally organized by Chicagoans Against War in Iraq in October 2002. Barack Obama had supported the war in Afghanistan, but he predicted that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."

That the Bush administration case for war was fundamentally flawed was evident to almost anyone who examined the evidence with any care, as America’s European allies, particularly France and Germany, realized and so, finally, refused to play along. Long before the postwar postmortems demonstrated the degree to which the administration’s arguments and those of their supporters were based on a combination of wishful thinking and doctored evidence, one could discern an evident pattern in administration claims that purposely discounted any evidence that interfered with their arguments and a willingness to trump up, exaggerate, and, frequently, simply invent incidents and phony eyewitnesses to further its case.

The liberals who embraced the war may not have adopted the administration’s arguments as their own, but they also weren’t willing to subject their claims to the kind of skepticism that administration claims clearly invited. To read their arguments in retrospect, the liberal hawks sounded less as if they were seeking to convince undecided Americans about the pragmatic case for war as they were to convince themselves of their ability to support a right-wing adventure in a (badly planned) imperial conquest while at the same time remaining true to their previous principles.

Arguments varied, naturally. Some focused on the perceived threat of terrorism—others on the need to combat what they termed “Islamo-fascism.” Still others grew excited about the opportunity to spread democracy where it had previously never existed and among a people routinely thought to be impervious to its benefits and incapable of assuming its responsibilities.

Oddly, many thought the war was necessary for America’s self-regard rather than for any particular threat that President Bush or anyone else professed to see. This was a phenomenon familiar to anyone who studied the debates over World War I. When the twin towers went down, the liberal journalist George Packer began to compile a collected set of essays, The Fight is for Democracy, with his memory of his first thoughts on 9/11: “Maybe this will make us better.”

Packer’s sometime moral and intellectual tutor, the liberal hawk Paul Berman, in his influential 2003 tome, Terror and Liberalism, argued that liberals could now fight against the writings of the Islamicist prophet Sayyid Qutb, who had an “irrationalist cult of death and murder” that mimicked that of fascism, and thereby allowed Berman’s adherents to see themselves as connected in history to the heroic struggle of those liberals—later smeared as “premature anti-fascists”—who sought to convince their countrymen that the fight against Adolf Hitler could not be postponed.

Almost all bought into the notion that military force was the only option to deal with the problem, mocking liberals at home and abroad who thought diplomatic containment a more prudent option. Not one examined the true dangers of war with cool-headed calculation.

The liberal hawks made their case in viscerally emotional terms. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in December 2002, George Packer described a panel discussion one night in Manhattan in which liberal intellectuals had it out over the war. Initially, the “nays” had it: “[I]nspections need time to work; the Bush doctrine has a dangerous agenda; the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is not encouraging. The audience of 150 New Yorkers seemed persuaded.”

At that point, Packer melodramatically turned attention to the final panelist, the Iraqi dissident, Kanan Makiya, who “outlined a vision of postwar Iraq as a secular democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. This vision would be new to the Arab world.”

Packer quoted Makiya: “It can be encouraged, or it can be crushed just like that. But think about what you’re doing if you crush it.” Makiya then rested his case on the following: “[I]f there’s a sliver of a chance of it happening, a 5 to 10 percent chance, you have a moral obligation, I say, to do it.”

Packer described the effect on the room as “electrifying,” insisting that the audience that “just minutes earlier had settled into a sober and comfortable rejection of war, exploded in applause. The other panelists looked startled, and their reasonable arguments suddenly lay deflated on the table before them.”

In fact, others who were there, and even on the panel, later disputed Packer’s account. He himself was a hawk, and it is entirely possible he exaggerated the degree to which Makiya’s romanticism carried the day. The liberal philosopher Michael Walzer, who was on the panel, said he found it ”very hard to respond” as “Makiya had spoken the language beloved by liberal hawks. He had met their hope of avoiding a war with an even greater hope. He had given the people in the room an image of their own ideals.”

The incident is telling because it demonstrates just how divorced the liberal hawk arguments were from the kinds of questions that traditionally determine whether a great nation commits its blood and treasure to a war, particularly a war of choice. There was no attempt to weigh the pros and cons of the invasion or to subject the evidence of the need for war or the likely sequence of events to follow it to any kind of sustained scrutiny. Rather the case was made in entirely moral terms, in the kind of language deliberately designed to seduce liberals with visions of democracy-building like sugar plums dancing beneath Christmas trees.

The liberal hawks had much success in the media but not a millisecond of military experience. Indeed, none enjoyed any particular professional expertise with regard to military strategy, Iraqi society, or the Arab world more generally. They saw their own ideas, as the author Jacob Heilbrunn would write, “as weapons in a moral struggle.” Apparently the occupation and reconstitution of Iraqi society were expected to take care of themselves.

They accepted the facile arguments of those like ex-Reagan official Kenneth Adelman who promised a “cakewalk” of a war. They shared with Dick Cheney the view that U.S. soldiers in Iraq would “be greeted as liberators.” Together with Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, they mocked estimates by Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki that upwards of 700,000 troops would be needed to stabilize the nation after the initial invasion.

Indeed, few, if any, of the liberal hawks gave much thought to the ability of the Bush administration to carry out the various complicated tasks that would be demanded of it once the relatively simple matter of dispatching a badly armed third-world military force in open battle had been completed. They flattered themselves that they knew bigger, more important things than such details.

As one of the most vociferous of liberal hawks, Christopher Hitchens, would explain in his 2010 memoir, Hitch 22, they “rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of.”

As we are about to enter a media-driven frenzy of “remembrance” of 9/11, let’s recall that what is most necessary in dealing with a genuine threat like Al Qaeda is prudence and common sense. As American politics goes further and further off the rails it will need liberals to provide them.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

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