Iraq and the Gulf of Tonkin

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The dust is not about to settle over the intelligence failure in Iraq. But it has already blurred our vision about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

There is still time to remind ourselves WMDs were not the principal reason for going to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; they were the pretext. And that’s why irrefutable evidence was not the standard. Axis of evil regime change was the lodestar.

When this writer first heard from prominent neoconservatives in April 2002 that war was no longer a question of “if” but “when,” the casus belli had little to do with WMDs. The Bush administration, they explained, starkly and simply, had decided to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emption had become the vehicle for driving axis of evil practitioners out of power.

President Bush made clear Sunday the U.S. was justified in toppling Saddam irrespective of elusive WMDs.

The liberation of Iraq, in the neocon scenario, would be followed by a democratic Iraq that would quickly recognize Israel. This, in turn, would “snowball” — the analogy only works in the Cedar Mountains of Lebanon — through the region, bringing democracy from Syria to Egypt and to the sheikhdoms, emirates and monarchies of the Gulf.

All these new democracies would then embrace Israel and hitch their backward economies to the Jewish state’s advanced technology. And Israel could at long last lower its guard and look forward to a generation of peace. That was the vision.

WMDs were weapons of mass deception that became the pretext for the grand design. As was a much ballyhooed, and later discredited, park bench meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohamed Atta, the September 11, 2001, Saudi kamikaze.

The amateur strategists in the neo-con camp knew a lot more about Israel and its need for peace than they did about the law of unintended consequences, writ large in Iraq, and in the Arab world beyond.

The neocons were not alone in misreading the state of play in Saddam’s Baghdad. The dictator was so detached from reality that he was writing heartthrob romance novels and sending them to Deputy Premier Tariq Aziz, the only sophisticated literary person in his entourage, for editorial comment.

As for WMDs, his scientists lied to him about the lack of progress in their laboratories and then got more funding for nonexistent programs. In a part of the world where telling the truth is considered the height of stupidity, even Republican Guard commanders were successfully disinformed about mythical WMDs capability being in other units than their own. We owe an apology to U.N. inspectors under Hans Blix — they got it right.

The principal intelligence failure was in not understanding the state of decay in the Ba’ath Party regime that most probably would have fallen of its own accord with another year of anywhere-anytime-intrusive-inspections throughout the country.

A cursory study of Iraqi history would have demonstrated that democracy in Iraq without a strong hand at the helm is a recipe for civil war. One-person-one-vote would quickly give the dominant (60 percent) Shi’ites the majority and a license to run the country in close partnership with the clerical regime that runs neighboring Iran. But this is clearly unacceptable to the Sunnis (20 percent) and the Kurds (20 percent).

The Shi’ites control the oil of the south and the Kurds can easily take possession of the oil of the north. The three Kurdish provinces moved a step closer to a unilateral declaration of independence when twin suicide bombers killed 72 last Sunday at the headquarters of the two main political parties.

Kurdish independence would leave the Sunnis high and dry in the center sans oil. Dominant for 85 years, the Sunnis are not about to roll over and accept a state of their own in the middle of the country. And the Shi’ite clergy has told U.S. authorities it is not interested in a secular, Westernized Iraq.

The U.S. plan to rescue a unitary state in Iraq with Iowa-type caucuses in 18 provinces was also doomed to failure — if only because Iraq is not Iowa. It also demonstrated one-person-one-vote elections are not the sine qua non of democracy the way they are in India, Western Europe and North America.

President Bush says, “I want the American people to know that I, too, want to know the facts” about what happened to WMDs in Iraq. Apparently, the president, too, was disinformed about WMDs being the reason he ordered U.S. troops into harm’s way. Because this was no more the provocation given by the war’s architects than the one put forward by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to escalation of the Vietnam War — and 58,000 American servicemen killed in action.

North Vietnamese gunboats did not attack U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, anymore than Saddam threatened to attack us with his nonexistent WMDs.

So the leitmotif for Operation Iraqi Freedom was not WMDs, but the freedom of Iraq in the larger context of long-range security for Israel. Mr. Bush is right to change the rationale for war to isn’t-the-world-a-better-place-without-Saddam? Of course it is. Was Iraq ever a threat to the U.S. homeland? Of course it wasn’t. But hasn’t the U.S. occupation of Iraq provided a force multiplier for al Qaeda? Of course it has. And the world is not a more peaceful place than it was before the occupation of Iraq.

The armchair strategists who pushed the war envelope in early 2002 dismissed any possibility of an insurgency after the liberation of Iraq. The entire population, according to this improvised conventional wisdom, couldn’t wait to join forces with the U.S. Now, two or three U.S. soldiers are killed every day in Iraq; some $200 billion in unbudgeted Iraqi and Afghan costs have been added to the national debt; a resurgent Taliban, fueled by the opium/heroin trade, is spreading its tentacles again in Afghanistan — all persuasive talking points for Democratic candidates on the stump.

The Bush Doctrine of pre-emption is now badly frayed at the seams. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have stretched deployable U.S. forces, including the guards and reserves, to the point where another pre-emption campaign would break the system — and bring back the draft.

A steady stream of would-be jihadis, or Islamist holy warriors, is making its way into Iraq across the unmarked, mostly desert, borders of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Camel caravans trekking from the Saudi kingdom all look the same, whether they are carrying dates or detonators. It was also the very same terrain Desert Storm troopers used to turn Saddam’s flank with a historic Hail Mary pass.

Saudi Arabia’s 150,000-strong army could patrol more aggressively some 400 miles of a desert border that is largely unguarded. But the Saudis now worry more about internal threats to the regime than anything happening on their far-flung borders in the Arabian Peninsula.

Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs were never a threat to anyone. But they have already struck a devastating blow to the credibility of the Bush White House. The Doctrine of pre-emption becomes inoperable without unimpeachable intelligence accepted by all as the coin of the realm.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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