Printer friendly version

October 9, 2004

The Changing Tone

I don't recall ever daring to offer a timeframe for the reconstruction of Iraq, in part because I expected five years to be an absolute minimum for clearing debris and diehards both, and that's too long a time to make guesses on such things. Moreover, such reconstruction isn't likely to be an orderly trend; sometimes it's going to feel as if things are going smoothly, then some chaos will seep in, requiring further measures. Well, we're about a year-and-a-half out from the war, and the most disheartening reality is the changed tone of some of those who supported it.

To be sure, when National Review publishes a gloomy cover asking "What Went Wrong?," a moment to consider what I might have missed is in order. As one would expect, the piece by Rich Lowry from which the cover's question is drawn is much more even and nowhere near an assault on the Bush administration, which the cover leaves open as a possibility. Let me say that again: the nature of the piece itself is what one would expect from an intelligent, fair, and conservative writer like Lowry. But the opinion world has become a surreal place, and even if that were not the case, the piece's presentation practically invited predictable commentary from the likes of Andrew Sullivan.

For his part, if nothing else, Mr. Sullivan provides the opportunity to solidify one's vague unease into the feeling that the recent past has already been successfully rewritten:

Thanks for all your emails about why the Bush war-plan did not even try to secure many of the Saddam weapons sites that might have contained WMDs and actually did contain ammunition that was subsequently looted. I'm sorry to say no one has a persuasive answer. One option is that the military was so intent on decapitating the regime that they ignored these real potential threats, regarding them as less of a priority. But wasn't the entire point of the invasion to prevent loose nukes, chems and bios from getting to terrorists? Another option is that there were simply too few troops to do all that needed to be done. But that ignores the fact that these weapons sites were left unguarded for weeks, while the borders were essentially open.

Sullivan implies a conclusion of incompetence on the administration's part. (How could an administration that supports the FMA properly run a war, after all?) Incompetence, however, requires that the action that retrospect suggests would have been better ought to have been clear under the circumstances of the day. To remind myself of those circumstances, I first perused some of my archives from the weeks surrounding the main thrust of the war.

One incident, although limited in scope, did much to return me to my frame of mind at the time. Remember that guy who ran out to the U.N. inspectors with a notebook? The inspectors ignored him, and Saddam's people took him away. It may be that reasonable people now will be less inclined to believe that the notebook held any information of value, but when the incident happened, we were still able to believe that it could have been anything. Moreover, as Roger Simon mentioned last month, the inspectors' reaction to the desperate Adnan Abdul Karim Enad sent a puzzling chill down many an American back:

This marked the beginning of my disaffection with the United Nations, of my wondering which side they were really on. My confusion, and ultimately disgust, only increased when the revelations of Oil-for-Food appeared.

Knowing what we now know, one wonders if the U.N.'s lack of interest had something to do with their being able to believe that the notebook could have contained information about just about anything. The underlying threat of unknowns also applied to Saddam's possible strategies. Remember this?

Shahristani said he believed Saddam planned to make his last stand in Baghdad in the event of a US-led attack and use the capital's four million residents as human shields.

"There has even been discussion within his circle to set up what they call a chemical belt around Baghdad using his chemical weapons to entrap the residents of Baghdad inside," he said.

Shahrastani quoted his informants as saying Saddam was banking on 50,000 to 100,000 soldiers to defend the city, but the scientist doubted they would fight to the last man.

Would avoidance of WMD-complicated urban warfare justify leaving some weapons sites unsecured, in Sullivan's view? How about the psychological strategic gain that the nature of the win garnered — and without which the post-attack phase of the war mightn't even have been as positive as it's been? For a taste of the gain, we need turn to none other than Andrew Sullivan and his writing at that time:

Three weeks. Under 100 American casualties, half of which came from accidents. No use of tactical WMD. Extraordinarily targeted bombing; exceptionally light force; oil wells intact; Israel secure; Turks kept at bay. War is terrible, of course. It may flare up again for a while. There's still a chance of last-minute atrocities. And every civilian casualty is a tragedy. But it's beginning to look as if this was an amazing military campaign, something of which the American and British people - and their governments - can be deeply, deeply proud.


This is an amazing victory, a victory over a monster who gassed civilians, jailed children, sent millions into fruitless wars, harbored poisonous weapons to threaten free peoples, tortured thousands, and made alliances with every two-bit opportunist on the planet. It's a victory over those who marched in the millions to stop this liberation, over the endless media cynics, over the hate-America crowd, and the armchair generals. It's a victory for the two countries in the world that have always made freedom possible and who have now brought it to another corner of the world made dark by terror. It's a victory for the extraordinary servicemen and women who performed this task with such skill, cool, courage and restraint. It's a victory for optimism over pessimism, the righting of past wrongs, the assertion of universal truths against postmodern excuses, and of political leadership over appeasement. Celebrate it. Don't let the whiners take this away from you or from the people of Iraq.

Or his criticism of the naysayers of the day:

THE COMING SPIN: You can see it now. Chaos. Looting. Disorder. Losing the peace. It's not that there won't be some truth to these stories; and real cause for concern. The pent-up fury, frustration and sheer anger of three decades is a powerful thing, probably impossible to stop immediately without too much force. And the last thing we want is fire-power directed toward the celebrating masses. The trouble is that they could become the narrative of the story, especially among the usual media suspects, and erode the impact and power of April 9. By Sunday, or sooner, you-know-who will probably have a front-page "news analysis" that will describe the joy of liberation being transformed into the nightmare of a Hobbesian quicksand of ever-looming cliches.

And how about some admonishment of the New York Times's opinionistas:

We liberated it with astonishing precision and with an amazing lack of damage to critical infrastructure. The fact that there's chaos in the interlude between Saddam's thuggery and a new government is a simple fact of human life. Tom[ Friedman]'s absolutely right about the need to invest time, money and care in rebuilding Iraq. But part of the impetus in America for such a task must come from genuine pride in what we have achieved; and a deeper understanding of its moral significance.

One wonders what happened to the necessity of genuine pride in moral significance that Sullivan finds it conscionable to even consider voting for somebody who would say that our "amazing military campaign" was really "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." One can only hope — and pray... often — that 2005 will find the administration embarking on its second term and the world of political opinions returning to equilibrium.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 9, 2004 9:16 PM

Good post, Justin.

One thing that continues to astonish me about Sullivan is how he repeatedly suggests, without qualification, that "the Administration" is downright blameworthy for having "got it wrong" on WMD. The previous administration? The Intelligence Services of allied governments? The judgments of past UN Weapons Officials? The implication of the fact that the undeservedly hallowed UNSC still found that Iraq had not met its "disarmament obligations"? The plain fact that, if Saddam had nothing to hide, he sure went to a lot of trouble to hide it?!

Since I conceived of the invasion, in one respect, as being the decisive occasion to carry out a truly unhampered "weapons inspection," I wish - as I've said repeatedly - that the U.S. and the Brits had framed their goals in this area as follows: "We aim to verify well and truly that Saddam Hussein has disarmed - and disarm him if he hasn't." That the governments weren't so parsimonious in their rhetoric surely shows the depth of their conviction as to Iraq's weapons possessions. Oh - I forgot: Bush "lied"[!].

Posted by: Paul Craddick at October 10, 2004 3:56 PM