Sunday, February 11, 2007

Barack and Iraq

I was dumbfounded when I heard the first faint drumbeat for war stirring in 2002. It was clear long before the phony evidence rolled out that the Bush administration was intent on invading Iraq, and it was clear all along that there was no good reason for doing so.

Back then, talk of Iraq kept turning up like a bad coin. Its intensity slowly mounted, in steady progression toward a confluence with the fall's midterm congressional elections. There could be no doubt about the administration's intent, and there was no doubt that it was crazy.

Understanding the absurdity of the situation required no special insight; the truth was within the grasp of any thinking person in possession of just a few commonly known facts about Iraq. Namely, that while Al Qaeda was a rabidly fundamentalist Islamist operation, the regime of Saddam Hussein was intensely secular--the two mixed like oil and water. Indeed, they despised each other.

Furthermore, Saddam's aspirations for power were at most regional, albeit thoroughly contained by over a decade of U.N. sanctions. And finally, while Saddam was first and foremost intent on his own survival, his attacking the United States would instead guarantee his demise. It was clear to me that none of the Bush administration's claims of Iraq being a threat to the U.S. made any sense.

That's why it's now appropriate to give credit and cast blame where credit and blame are due.

Hillary Clinton (and a large raft of other senators and representatives) must have known where all the war talk was heading. Knowing what the Bush administration was up to, and understanding the seriousness of the matter, they should have exercised requisite due diligence and responsible oversight instead of rushing to give the president the war powers he requested. They did not.

They should, at a minimum, have read the full classified NIE that was available to them. They should have asked a hell of a lot more questions, demanded a hell of a lot more answers, and expressed a hell of a lot more skepticism. In justifying her vote in the fall of 2002, Hillary now protests that she expected the president to use his powers responsibly. Why did she assume that he would?

Barack Obama, by contrast, was an early and articulate critic of the rush to war. He demonstrated the kind of clear thinking that was sorely lacking and badly needed in the political climate of the day. Where so many fell short, Obama demonstrated basic good judgment. It's no exaggeration to say that may be the single most important quality in a president.

Could Barack Obama and the early war critics have been wrong? They could have, but they weren't. Could there have been secret intelligence that made the case for WMD a "slam dunk?" We've seen how hollow the "intelligence" really was.

It is neither necessary nor desirable to wait until the conquest is complete to assess the merits of the case. When it comes to war, you'd better know going in that you're right: ex post facto discoveries of error are unacceptable. That the administration was on tenterhooks waiting for the WMD to be found in mid-2003 underscores how tenuous the case was in the first place.

Those who shrug that we simply and perhaps unavoidably got it wrong ignore the fact that there were plenty of contemporaneous indications that the case was much less credible than the administration was making it out to be. For example, doubts about the aluminum tubes were reported long before the invasion. And any man on the street might well have asked why the U.N. inspectors who were back in country hadn't turned up any evidence of WMD whatsoever. What right had anybody to be surprised?

In September 2003, as the situation in Iraq was already badly unraveling, I emailed an acquaintance with whom I occasionally corresponded that Bush was a dismal failure. "Good thing someone's willing to lead," he rebutted.

But if we're being led to disaster, like lemmings over a cliff, in what sense can that be "good?" If we're going to be led, then better to have a leader who can exercise judgment commensurate with the greatest challenges of the office. Even more so now with all the damage that has to be undone.

As the 2008 presidential campaign ramps up, the gross failures of the current administration may cause American voters to value a prospective president's judgment in ways they might not have otherwise done. That's why Barack Obama has so quickly become a credible candidate. Were it not for Iraq, there might not be a Barack.

Copyright (C) 2007 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


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