Whitewashing the failure in Iraq

On the eve of President Obama's speech to the nation on Iraq, some of the people who dreamed up this foolish war or helped persuade the nation that it was a good idea are getting out their paintbrushes and whitewash. I refer, of course, to the twin op-eds in today's New York Times by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and neoconservative columnist David Brooks.

Wolfowitz, you will recall, was one of the main architects of the war, having pushed the invasion during the 1990s and as soon as he became Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush adminstration. He was the guy who recommended invading Iraq four days after 9/11, even though Osama bin Laden was nowhere near Iraq and there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with it. For his part, Brooks was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in the months prior to the invasion, and he continued to defend it long after the original rationale had been exposed as a sham.

The main thrust of Wolfowitz's column is that the United States should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to yield a "stable country." His analogy is to Korea, where the United States has stationed troops for nearly sixty years. Of course, Wolfowitz ignores the fact that our role in Korea was defensive: we entered the Korean War after North Korea invaded the South (with Soviet help), and we did so with the full authorization of the U.N. Security Council. In Iraq, by contrast, the United States went to war on the basis of bogus evidence, as part of a grand scheme to "transform" the entire Middle East. 

Staying in Korea was also part of the broader strategy of containment, which made good sense in that historical epoch. The Soviet Union was a serious great power adversary and North Korea was a close Soviet ally, and there was every reason to think the North might try again if South Korea were left on its own. By contrast, maintaining a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq isn't going to contain anyone, and it is precisely that sort of on-the-ground interference that fuels jihadi narratives about nefarious Western plans to dominate Muslim lands. It is perhaps also worth remembering that our prolonged military presence in South Korea isn't very popular there anymore, and that most Iraqis want us out of their country too.

Notice also that Wolfowitz says very little about the costs of this adventure in the past, or how much more blood and treasure the United States should be expected to spend in the future. There are boilerplate references to the "brave men and women" of the U.S. military, and to Iraq's people "who have borne a heavy burden." All true, but he doesn't offer any numbers (either dollars spent or lives lost), because he might have to take his share of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people who would be alive today if the United States had not followed his advice. It would also remind us that he once predicted that the war would cost less than $100 billion and that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and so it wouldn't cost the American taxpayer a dime. Given that track record, in fact, one wonders why the Times editors thought he was a reliable source of useful advice on Iraq today.

As for Brooks, his column is a transparent attempt to retroactively justify an unnecessary war. He marshals an array of statistics showing how much things have improved in Iraq, but all his various numbers show is that after you've flattened a country and dismantled its entire political order, you can generate some positive growth rates if you pour billions of dollars back in. He claims this "nation-building" effort cost only $53 billion (hardly a trivial sum), but that figure omits all the other costs of the war (which economist Joseph Stiglitz and budget expert Linda Bilmes estimate to be in excess of $3 trillion). And like Wolfowitz, Brooks is mostly silent about the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead and wounded Americans who paid the price for their naïve experiment in social engineering.

Of course, what Wolfowitz and Brooks are up to is not hard to discern. They want Americans to keep pouring resources into Iraq for as long as it takes to make their ill-fated scheme look like a success. Equally important, they want to portray Iraq in a somewhat positive light now, so that Obama and the Democrats get blamed when things go south.

All countries make mistakes, because leaders are fallible and no political system is immune from folly. But countries compound their errors when they cannot learn from them, and when they don't hold the people responsible for them accountable. Sadly, these two pieces suggest that the campaign to lobotomize our collective memory is now underway. If it succeeds, we can look forward to more "success stories" like this in the future.



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