On the ten year anniversary of the War in Iraq, Peter Feaver “celebrated” with a post on Foreign Policy about five “myths” that pervade views about the war. Lists are fun. And this is a fun list. I say this because I hope nobody is taking this list seriously. I appreciate Feaver’s effort to try to clear up what happened in the build-up to the war. To be honest, I am still not sure exactly why the war in Iraq occurred. I do agree with Feaver’s implicit claim that monocausal explanations of the war are doomed to fail; this is a complicated policy issue that evolved in unpredictable ways from 2002 through 2004 that now cloud our ability to judge what happened.
All that being said, I don’t think Feaver’s attempt to clear the air makes a significant contribution to our knowledge about the war for three reasons. First, some of the “myths” are strawmen with which no serious observer of international politics would actually agree. Consider, for instance, the following myth:
The “real” motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.
Feaver then proceeds to debunk each of these in turn. This is not necessary. Evocation of such arguments against the war come about only through serious misreadings of The Israel Lobby, Rise of the Vulcans, and, perhaps, Orientalism. In Feaver’s defense, he does admit that these are opinions held by “far left (and right) fringes.” But is this really who Feaver is targeting with this post?
The second type of myths are oddly-timed reaffirmations of some of the same arguments used in the build-up to the war a decade ago. For instance, Feaver rebuts John Mearsheimer’s claim that the Bush administration lied about the al-Qaeda-Iraq link as follows:
The first is the question of links between Iraq and al Qaeda. As I noted above, while the Iraq files contain no “smoking gun” of an active operational link, the record includes ample evidence of overtures originating from either side — each pursuing precisely the kind of enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance of convenience that Bush worried about.
Ok. So, in conclusion, then: no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. I sincerely hope that this country’s national security apparatus does not consider “overtures” proper casus belli.
Finally, Feaver correctly addresses the myth that the Bush administration wanted to democratize Iraq from the start with two fairly persuasive points: (1) learning from Desert Storm, Bush officials were only committed to Saddam Hussein’s forcible removal from power, and (2) once Saddam had been removed, the administration promoted democracy as the best option for a post-Saddam Iraq. Obviously, the administration was woefully underprepared for this endeavor. Nonetheless, Feaver’s description of the timing of the motives is sound. However, he offers little clarity in his description of the primary cause of the war:
Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD)
This sentence barely means anything. Mostly, it’s just national security buzzwords strewn about a couple of proper nouns and “WMD” to lend an air of credibility to a nonsensical policy decision. It’s especially curious that Feaver would call Iraq a “nexus of WMD and terrorism” given the overwhelming evidence that it had neither in the spring of 2003. While it is important to clear the air surrounding some of the overtly biased arguments against the War in Iraq, it is equally important not to revert back to the same myths that led us into this mess to begin with.
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