Now He Tells Us

Pulling the rug out in Iraq


You can speculate all you like about the U.S. motives for going to war in Iraq. Maybe it was concern over Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it was a straightforward island-hop in the war against terrorists of global reach, what President Bush calls "one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001." Maybe it was the coming-and-going meetup between Mohammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. Maybe it was all about overthrowing a despot. Maybe it was all about stealing oil. Maybe it was about evacuating Saudi Arabia. Maybe it was about Israel's security. Maybe it was part of a long-term effort to bring the Middle East into the 21st Century. Maybe the idea was to turn Iraq into a "magnet for terrorists," so we can get them all into one place and really clobber them. Maybe it was all about getting juicy contracts for Halliburton.

All these ideas, and many more, have been advanced, so you're free to speculate on any or all of them. But just admit one thing: You don't know why we invaded Iraq.

Befuddlement is no shame in this instance. The Bush Administration has not only given up few clues about the war's real aims; it's even been a spoilsport about its fictional aims. You'd expect the chief executive would be happy to leave untouched a 69 percent poll rating that effectively shows support for his actions. Yet the President, probably spurred by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's own gaffe, has now disappointed the nearly three-quarters of Americans who dutifully believed Saddam was behind the September 11 attacks. Even if they were wrong to believe that, why come out and say so at this late date? Wouldn't we all be better off believing the fib?

Nor has the administration provided much food for detractors bent on exposing its allegedly hidden motives. If control of Iraq's oil riches was the goal, why have the Administration's "oil men" so far shown themselves unable to get that oil under control? For that matter, the Israelis don't appear noticeably more secure now than they were back in January.

There are plenty of good reasons to believe that early claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, sexed-up or not, were at least partially based in fact. But there are far better reasons to believe these weapons were massively destructive only by the most liberal of definitions, and that Iraq posed no real threat, direct or indirect, to the United States. In fact, it's unlikely that any discovery at this point will balance out the draining postwar controversy over the exaggerations in these claims.

As the variety of stated, hinted, implied, and intuited reasons for going to war melt, thaw and resolve themselves into a dew, the much-maligned "neocon" argument looks increasingly attractive. The most ambitious version of this approach, described by Charles Paul Freund a year ago, holds out the potential that a more democratic Iraq, with greater personal freedoms, could inspire democratic trends throughout the Middle East.

This is the foreign policy equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, and the Middle East presents too much evidence for hopelessness to put much stock in it. It's also the sort of plan that, even if successful, would keep the United States intimately involved in Middle East politics for a hundred years, and end up transforming America as much as it does the Middle East. But it is the one argument for which there has been at least been some evidence in the postwar period: Attempts to turn former goon squads into effective law enforcement agencies have had occasional success. Newspapers, satellite TV, public demonstrations, open dissent, and even blue movies are flourishing in Iraq. Is any of that worth a steady stream of dead Americans? Certainly not, if that's all there is. But if these were the first seeds in a process that will eventually transform the Middle East from a patchwork of terror states and an incubator of real threats to civilization into a productive part of the world community, it might be worth a very great price in lives and treasure.

The problem is that nobody has made that argument. It's a measure of how much contempt President Bush has for the American voters that even now he won't spell out the goal of the Iraq mission in plain terms. His new candor about the Iraq-9/11 connection is welcome, but those hapless 69 percent of poll respondents deserved better. Much contempt has been heaped on this gullible majority, but it wasn't unreasonable to accept an idea that had been strongly and repeatedly implied by the leaders of the nation. If anything, this openness to suggestion demonstrates how transformative 9/11 really was, and the abuse of that event's patriotic surge in favor of spin and dissimulation is pretty disheartening—which may be why folks with solid patriotic credentials are among the most embittered.

It's possible that the regional-transformation argument remains the most compelling because it is so ambitious and airy that it can't really be falsified within any of our lifetimes. Still, it's a real vision, and if that's what Americans are dying for, the President should say so. He hasn't.

In the resulting vacuum, familiar arguments reassert themselves. Quagmirists seize on fragmentary, decontextualized evidence to prove that Iraq is another Vietnam. (I must have skipped class the day they covered that part where the U.S. had full and unfettered military control of every region on the Indochinese peninsula.) Increasingly thin-skinned hawks cite equally fragmentary evidence and beat on the straw man of defeatism to prove that this is the greatest victory since Agincourt.

What makes this particular flashback so tiresome is that the debate over going to war in Iraq should have been over by now. And the administration that singlehandedly made the war happen should be advancing more inspiring arguments than possible exit strategies, better international burden-sharing, or a relatively low cost. Humiliating as it is to see the president begging for $87 billion, it's to be expected when the most elevating way to discuss a war is to haggle over the price.