Heroic assumptions

by Henry Farrell on July 27, 2003

Dan Drezner’s “post”:http://volokh.com/2003_07_20_volokh_archive.html#105917081573152949 on the agreements and differences between Josh Marshall and Steven den Beste has stirred up quite a debate, including posts by “Kieran”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000297.html , “Kevin Drum”:http://www.calpundit.com/archives/001760.html and “Tim Dunlop”:http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/001388.php . My tuppence worth: Dan has identified some interesting points of agreement between Den Beste and Marshall, but I still don’t buy Dan’s arguments about the justifications for the war, or its likely consequences.

“Kieran”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000297.html has already blogged on some of this and I agree – there’s a key distinction between the causes of the war (a matter for debate among historians), and the public justifications offered for it (see also Tim’s “discussion”:http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/001388.php of how these justifications have shifted over time). So, regardless of whether the underlying rationale for war makes sense, Bush should be held accountable for using dubious factoids (that his top people should have, and almost certainly did know to be dubious) in order to make the case for war.

But that’s an issue for American voters in 2004. What’s more worrying is the rationale itself, as Dan (and indeed Marshall and Den Beste) present it. It’s hard not to like the idea of a transformed Middle East made up of peace-loving pluralist democracies. However, there has been little to no public debate of whether the means that the US administration is using are appropriate to the ends. I can buy the argument that the spread of democracy is likely to lead in the long run to more peaceful international relations. ^1^ I’m skeptical that the invasion of Iraq was a necessary first step towards this end. And I’m downright pessimistic about the damage that the Bush administration has done to international institutions in the lead-up to the invasion.

As I’ve argued before, “thick” international institutions have played a key role in most previous successful attempts to install democracies from outside. The US was so successful in helping build democracy in post-WWII Europe because it was prepared to help construct a thick web of international institutions, including NATO and the European Union (then called the EEC). As John Ikenberry has “argued”:http://pup.princeton.edu/chapters/s6981.pdf, these institutions mitigated distrust between the US and other countries – the US showed itself willing to restrain its powers in order to foster the development of its allies. The European Union in turn provided actively helped democratize Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1980’s. It’s doing the same thing in Central and Eastern Europe today.

In contrast to its post-WWII predecessor, the Bush administration has deliberately set itself against constraining international institutions. It has trashed relations with its “Old European” allies, sidelined NATO, and demonstrated its contempt for the United Nations. It doesn’t seem to be interested in deep multilateral institution building, except when it has absolutely no other choice. But a world with thick multilateral institutions bolstering democracies is exactly the world in which democracies are most likely to prosper.

And this, it seems to me, is the difference between the positions that Marshall and Den Beste have taken. Marshall is a multilateralist, who is deeply concerned by the damage that the US has done to its relations with its allies, as well as the “heroic assumptions”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0304.marshall.html underlying neo-con aspirations for world politics. Den Beste is a gung-ho unilateralist, whose understanding of international relations has the charming but frightening simplicity of the videogame version of _The Hunt for Red October_. I find it strange that the administration’s views often seem closer to Den Beste’s than to Marshall’s, or, for that matter, to Drezner’s.

^1^ I note, however, that few international affairs “realists” would agree.

(Updated to remove an overly snarky comment.)



Keith M Ellis 07.27.03 at 9:38 am

In my opinion–and I think I’m well-informed on this matter–there’s no question that this administration’s motivations and public rationale for this war differ substantially enough that a charge of mendacity is warranted.

As a utilitarian and a pragmatist, I think I’d be more open to the “end justifying the means” argument if the people arguing on that basis were correctly identifiying the “end”, which they’re not. On even the (too) narrow basis–the post-war situation in Iraq–the jury is still out. But a proper context for evaluating the “ends” would be the consequences of this war in all its geopolitical ramifications and, importantly, an evaluation of the harm done by justifying the war in a way that it essentially antidemocratic. It’s my belief that the latter is almost always unjustifiable.

A less generalized view is also damning. The administration didn’t pick some random rationale that would appeal to the public, they picked the most emotionally manipulative rationale possible–explicitly by connecting Iraq with Al Qaeda, inplicitly by claiming that Iraq was a threat to the US with WMDs in the context of 9/11. I think there’s something particularly egregious about this and I strongly suspect that I would be far less angry about the matter if the rationale had been “merely” the typical political misdirection.

As to the administration’s real motivations, it’s insufficient to describe them as a plan to reshape (for the better) the middle east. That’s too narrow. The real plan was to use the opportunity of 9/11 to justify an invasion of Iraq; to do so unilaterally; demonstrate not only America’s military might (already unquestioned, but also to demonstrate that this sort of thing is easy) and the benefit that arises from its utilization. This demonstration was intended to weaken the institutions and viewpoints that oppose the use of American unilateral force and to lay the foundation for a new American foreign policy that is explicitly interventionist and unilateralist and explicitly activist in reshaping the world, with military force, more to the US’s liking. It’s military imperialism. The neocons won’t use that phrase, but that’s what it is, and their defense of it is that it’s a benign imperialism. It doesn’t occur to them that this is what all imperialists always say; or, rather, it does but in their case they “know” they’re morally right.

Now, although I’m an American liberal, I’m not as allergic to unilateralism and military interventionism like my brethren. I’m not the sort fo dismiss the neocons point of view in this matter out-of-hand simply because it’s unilateral and interventionist. But I do dismiss their argument because I think they’re hideously, dangerously wrong in their geopolitical assumptions. Their evidently absurd expectations about post-war Iraq demonstrate how naive their worldview is. In this context, I believe that this attempted shift in American foreign policy is extremely dangerous and very likely to blow up (literally) in their face. It could be as the result of spreading our military forces too thin because of unexpected lengthy occupations and then getting into a war we don’t have the resources to win; or it could be as the result of further and increased terrorist actions on US shores that results from increased resentment against the US coupled with the fact that these US actions are not likely to significantly defend the US from terrorist threats. It is entirely possible and credible to imagine North Korea selling a small nuclear bomb to terrorists who detonate it in a large US harbor. This is what Americans are really afraid of; and aside from the morality of all this, when/if Americans discover, horribly, that this administration’s militarism hasn’t defended us, there’ll be hell to pay.

All in all, the deepest problem with this administration and its rationale for the Iraq war, its true motivations, and its actions are that these are arrogant, very dangerous people. Similar but in contrast to de Beste, I fear (but would not be surprised to see) that history judges this administration very, very harshly.


Richard 07.27.03 at 12:27 pm

It amazes me that the threat Iraq posed, in a post-9-11 world, is discounted so easily by so many bloggers, journos, and academics. Nobody is willing to take at face value the many statements by Bush, Blair et al (Cheney: “How could any responsible leader have ignored the Iraqi threat?”).

Of course, you all ‘know better’: 9-11 and the ‘Iraqi threat’ were conveniently used to push forward the neo-con agenda, right? So, analysis focuses on geo-strategic rationales which are certainly important, and naturally generate many interesting discussions.

I guess nobody thinks Iraq was a threat because they cannot conceive “how” and this belief is now reinforced, post-war, by the failure, so far, to find WMD. But to me the threat was easy to understand. Essentially, 9-11 demonstrated what Al-Qa’ida could do if Saddam decided to help them, and trusting him not to do that was no longer an option.

Al-Qa’ida spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith stated last year:

“We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill 4 million Americans – 2 million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of the [Americans’] chemical and biological weapons”.

I just don’t think many of you guys “get it”. The establishment of the “shadow government”, Cheney and Bush being kept physically separated etc. (Barton Gellman and Susan Schmidt, “Shadow Government Is at Work in Secret”, March 1, 2002, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20584-2002Feb28.html). Blair certainly “gets it” – big time – but these guys know that when they go to work each day there is a large “X Marks the Spot” under their chair. More importantly, they are responsible for the lives and security of millions of people.

In the post-9-11 world, Saddam no longer had “the benefit of the doubt”. You can argue ad infinitum about whether he did or didn’t, would or wouldn’t have ties to Al-Qa’ida; about whether he had WMD before the war and destroyed them, hid them, moved them, or whether he was waiting for a more opportune time to reconstitute his programs; about whether the intelligence was good or bad; or whatever.

But he was Saddam Hussein. Bush and Blair gave him one last chance. Beyond that, they were not prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not in a post-9-11 world.

The rest: the grand geo-strategic plans to reshape the Middle East, to deal with the “root causes” – fine. Argue whether it ties in with a wider conspiracy or not; argue whether it is right or wrong to engage in ‘nation-building’ this way; whether it’s doomed to failure or the only real choice we have.


Keith M Ellis 07.27.03 at 12:54 pm

Richard, your argument fails because North Korea was and is manifestly a greater threat to the US in the way in which you claim than Iraq was. So are, in fact, a number of regimes that were not under international containment and inspection, such as Iran. Iraq was not an exceptional threat. It just wasn’t. It was one threat among many threats.

Perhaps you incorrectly believe that there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. There’s little or no evidence that this is the case–evidence that we should be able to have gathered, now that both Afghanistan and Iraq are under US control. Without any compelling evidence, such a supposition is extremely suspect given that Hussein was a secular Arab nationalist despised on principle by Islamic fundamentalists. These are not natural comrades, at best they would have been friends-of-convenience; and, anyway, there are a other, friendlier governments that Al Qaeda could get covert assistance from.


Richard 07.27.03 at 1:55 pm

Thx for your reply Keith.

So my argument fails because Iraq was ‘one threat among many threats’? Iraq was a threat but, because there were also other threats, perhaps greater threats, the already-conceded Iraqi threat was not really a threat?

And without ‘compelling evidence’ (utilising our well-regarded, 100% reliable intelligence resources) no need to be concerned about the possibility of an Iraqi / Al-Qa’ida connection. Why, it’d be like Hitler and Stalin working together – unthinkable.

Bush and Blair on the other hand asked Saddam to provide the ‘compelling evidence’ – that he had met his disarmament obligations. A process was set up for him to do just that – he had the chance to avoid the war.

The perspective of Bush and Blair was that, in a post-9-11 world, where millions of lives are potentially at stake from WMD terrorism, the burden of proof was on Saddam Hussein.

The benefit of the doubt that you so confidently extend to Saddam Hussein and Al-Qa’ida was no longer a reasonable option.


Sven 07.27.03 at 5:36 pm

I propose a blogosphere debate on whether the war was justified.

Each side’s blogger participants discuss and vote upon debate points among themselves, and the winning entry is posted on a neutral blog. A panel of academic referees moderates and rejects all ad hominem attacks.

All readers are charged admission, with proceeds benefitting disabled veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The losing side, determined by a third-party panel or a vote of the hoi polloi, agrees to shut up about Iraq and all related issues for a month.


Mark S. 07.28.03 at 12:30 am

Richard, the reason the stated explanation – the “benefit of the doubt” explanation – doesn’t work for most people is because the acts of those in power, with the exception of the initiation of the war itself, are not the acts one should expect from people who seriously believe that rationale.

1. Where are the WMDs? Paul Wolfowitz not only doesn’t know, he _doesn’t care_. Explicitly. Donald Rumsfeld, who said we knew precisely where they were, now spends all his time, debating-society-style, arguing over whether the President’s 16 words were “technically accurate.” Men who cared as deeply as you imply they must about WMD falling in the hands of al Qaeda should be darn near filling their pants at not finding any so far in Iraq. These folks act like it’s some kind of snipe hunt. I ask you, are those the actions of people so petrified of WMD proliferation that they would countenance the breaking of most of the post-World War II order to prevent it?

2. The Iran/North Korea/Yemen/Saudi Arabia counterexamples are important as well. Saudi Arabia has aided and abetted al Qaeda, repeatedly and unambiguously; North Korea is the world’s worst missile tech proliferator, and has essentially threatened to proliferate heu; Iran’s nuclear program is far more advanced than Iraq’s ever was; Yemen remains a haven for al Qaeda even after the COLE and even after the government is putatively allied with us in the Global War on Terror. In none of these cases have we threatened military action (except, perhaps very, very obliquely, with North Korea); in none of these cases have we told the international community the threat was too urgent to wait for it to act. The “low-hanging fruit” argument can be made, and some war proponents have made it, but in ignoring the will of the international community in Iraq, the administration made any other such endeavor far, far harder. That suggests the administration thought the threat Iraq posed was unique, or highly unusual – which suggests some other analytical perspective than the “benefit of the doubt” one you have offered on their behalf.


J 07.28.03 at 1:28 am

Richard, you may be interested in this Balkinization post:
“The Washington Post reports that the Bush Administration was warned in October that attacking Saddam might make the country less safe, not more…”


richard 07.28.03 at 2:57 am

Mark: in response to your two points.

First, to suggest these guys ‘don’t care’ makes it hard for me to take the rest of your argument seriously. Certainly the question “If there were WMD, where is it now?” is important. Another good question is: “How much of a threat is it now?” IE questions about quantity, access, deterioration. Are Al-Qa’ida really in a better position now than they would be if Saddam were still in power?

I didn’t notice Rumsfeld ‘filling his pants’ after a commercial airliner hit the other side of the building he was working in. I suppose he might be made of stronger stuff. Nor do I think Rumsfeld “spends all his time” debating the ’16 words’. I expect he has more important things on his mind.

Which brings me to your second point. I don’t see a lack of strategic attention being paid to North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (I would also include Pakistan) but I do agree with you that intelligence failures during the Iraq war have made some scenarios involving those countries “far, far harder”. This could change when the assessment of what Saddam was really up to comes in. It also depends on what strategies are proposed with respect to those other countries.

As for what made the Iraqi threat “unique, or highly unusual” by comparison with those other countries, my guess would be (1) the fact that the US and Iraq have been essentially at war since the 1990s (including the ‘no fly zones’, various punitive bombings, the sanctions, the inspections, Saddam’s attempt to assassinate a US president etc), (2) Saddam’s established track record with respect to WMD, ie deceit, hidden WMD programs and (3) Iraq being an Arab country located close to Al-Qa’ida’s environs (and home to Abu Musab Zarqawi, Ansar al-Islam).

J: yes I saw the original WP article. I imagine the President received advice from a number of sources. Certainly there remain risks from Iraqi WMD, as the NIE indicates. But as against the risk of what happens to the residue there is also the risk of what happens if the pump is left running.


the masses are asses 07.28.03 at 9:28 am


Considering your inclusion of the highly entertaining MEMRI quote – (he didn’t say killing children…oh the humanity) – the knee-jerk reaction that makes it ‘hard for you to take arguments seriously’ is rather surprising.

Noting the fact that Paul Wolfowitz went on record last week saying…

“I’m not concerned about weapons of mass destruction. I’m concerned about getting Iraq on its feet. I didn’t come [to Iraq] on a search for weapons of mass destruction.”

…it would be wrong for you not to take Mark’s arguments seriously. Although they’re not as dramatic as those of MEMRI’s Al Qaeda ‘mastermind of the week’ – Mark happened to be referring to words that came right from the horse’s mouth.

More importantly, no amount of violin play (i.e. – poor Donald Rumsfeld was on the other side of the building, boo-hoo) will convince a reasonably intelligent person that the operations in Afghanistan, Iraq – and the ‘war on terrorism’ in general – have done anything to improve global security – and to insist that this is a goal of the ‘Bush doctrine’ would be unintelligent.

As for your ‘list’ mentioning the highly illegal ‘no-fly zones’, an immoral sanction regime that punished everyone but the rulers, and inspection regimes that were riddled with US/UK interference – one must question whether the US/UK lying and deception started long before the current troubles with ‘flawed intelligence.’

As for “deceit” – the most honest document made public about Iraq was the much maligned 12,000-page statement by none other than Saddam Hussein (a statement that we immediately reviled as full of lies). It was more accurate than anything this government has put out (or anything you seem to be holding on to). As for your ‘he tried to kill my daddy’-logic – Judith Miller couldn’t have written a better tale.

The ‘threat’ you describe was the result of lies and manipulation – and your concern about “what Saddam was really up to” is fruit of the poisonous vine – and just as transparent. Although this will become more and more clear in the coming weeks, the neoconservative tune won’t change much – even down the road, after the U.S. is forced to leave. But good luck with the sell.

And thanks for being kind enough to reveal your true feelings about why Iraq was a threat…

3) Iraq being an Arab country located close to Al-Qa’ida’s environs

I know, I know…you’re only targeting militant Islam.


Duncan 07.28.03 at 4:56 pm


There is, I think, one pretty conclusive argument against a WMD threat being the driving force behind the invasion. Prior to the war, there was only site in Iraq that we knew with 100% certainty contained WMD-related material – the Al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility. The fact that Centcom didn’t even bother to send a handful of troops to secure this material makes it hard to claim they were seriously worried about WMD.


phil 07.28.03 at 7:02 pm

Richard: your argument also fails because even if we accept arguendo that Iraq was an enormous threat, it doesn’t follow that the best way to confront that threat was the means Bush used (no UN involvement, alienating our allies, immediate war instead of waiting any longer, lost opportunity costs in not having sufficient military force left over to invade elsewhere, etc.)

Josh Marshall, as I understand him, has historically argued that Iraq was a serious threat that needed to be tackled, but that the Bush administration’s war as conceived and realized was ruinous. The latter has been borne out.


brayden 07.28.03 at 9:39 pm

The statements of U.S. and British leaders who supported the war displayed, in my mind, a deliberate attempt to provide multiple rationales. They probably were fully aware of the fact that WMD might not be found in the event of an invasion of Iraq. They covered their bases by offering alternative rationales, although they always knew the best legal justification was self-defense (stop the bastards from terrorizing the world with their WMD!!). They were smart. The leaders provided themselves an implicit “escape route,” and as we all now, they were forced to use it.

To me this seems to be an example of politics identified by John Padgett and Christopher Ansell as “robust action.” You can get a copy of their paper at http://home.uchicago.edu/~jpadgett/papers/published/robust.pdf

The idea is that politicians try to retain control through alternative bases of support. It implies that leaders end up being “multivocal,” often expressing contradictory statements just to appease their constituencies. Although the Padgett and Ansell article talks about the structural preconditions of robust action, the whole war justification project clearly seems to be along the same lines. Robust action provides an accessible means to revise history in the way that best fits your interests. Ironically, Bush and others claim that their critics are the revisionists.

I think the opposition has a moral obligation to set the record straight and recognize the ambiguity of the pre-war justifications and the subsequent revisionism.


richard 07.29.03 at 2:57 am

Thanks for your comments. I don’t have time (or space, or the desire) to respond to each and every point, so I will only make a couple of comments. The main point I wished to make can be seen above: that you might consider the possibility that Bush and Blair indeed perceived the Iraqi WMD threat to be real, to the extent that millions of lives were at stake.

I am struck by how some of you pounce on isolated statements or some event (open to interpretation) as “proof” of your conspiracy theory. Surely out of the thousands of people involved you can produce somebody willing to state clearly and unequivocably that they never believed the WMD threat was real and that they were lying all along?

Take for example the Wolfowitz quote: nevermind that Wolfowitz told the reporters hounding him about WMD that he didn’t care about the WMD issue right then because that was the job of the intelligence services, that he was there to try and get the country onto it’s feet and that’s what he wanted to focus on. Direct quote: “I’m not saying that getting to the bottom of this WMD issue isn’t important. It is important. But it is not of immediate consequence.” See for yourself: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-07-22-wolfowitz-iraq_x.htm.

The same applies to what happened at Al-Tuwaitha. It looks to me like a stuff-up but to the conspiracy theorist it is seized upon as “proof” that there was never any concern about WMD (despite all other evidence to the contrary).

At least Phil makes an argument – that even if Iraq was a threat, the war was both unnecessary and ruinous. Yet somehow he thinks his presenting his argument proves my point false. Perhaps Phil really is in an unassailable position to know the best way to confront the threat that he concedes, but I doubt it.

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