Attempting to explain why governments so often pursue policies contrary to their own interests, historian Barbara Tuchman provided four basic reasons, often acting in combination: tyranny, excessive ambition, incompetence, and folly.
Looking specifically at the Vietnam War, she noted that although those who designed and implemented that debacle understood the obstacles and dangers, they insisted on “staying the course” due to a combination of overreaction, illusions of omnipotence, and a shortage of reflective thought — the inability to balance the possible gain against the harm being done both in Vietnam and at home. She categorized these as forms of folly, an explanation more generous than many people apply to most US administrations.
Although the ingredients are largely the same – exaggerating the “national security” imperatives at work, assuming that the world’s “only remaining Superpower” can’t possibly lose, and refusing to consider that an invasion could spark resistance, potentially on a scale that is impossible to contain — describing the Iraq War as pure folly is far too simple.
The first alternative explanation, advanced largely by elected accomplices eager to save face, was incompetence. The war began due to a “massive intelligence failure,” they argued, pointing to years of so-called evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a serious, although perhaps not imminent, threat to Iraq’s neighbors and the West. But even such semi-critics, both liberal and conservative, endorsed the idea that the United States should pursue “regime change.” In other words, they assumed the right and the power to transform a country, to replace its power structure and “democratize” it. Clearly, a delusion of grandeur.
As the decade wound down, most people in the United States began to see through the re-writing on the wall and appeared to think their leaders had been deluded, somewhat incompetent, or both. Others claim what could be defined as folly.
What remains is a heated debate over whether this actually explains the situation, or if darker forces are at work. In short, was it just a terrible mistake, or did the Bush administration consciously mislead the country? If the latter, the issue becomes whether its actions meet the definition of tyranny.
Sensitive to the danger, Pres. George Bush used a Veterans Day speech in 2005 to respond to his critics, charging that it is “deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” His version, at that point, was that removing Hussein from power had “strong bipartisan support” and that no one pressured the intelligence community to alter its apparently erroneous judgments. But this is already an historical rewrite.
What Congress authorized was the use of force, if necessary, to ensure that Iraq either give up its weapons of mass destruction, or prove it didn’t have any. Although it is disingenuous for Democrats like Hillary Clinton to claim that they didn’t know Bush’s true aim, the fact is that their votes voiced a potentially different outcome. It is also clear that the information Congress received was not complete, but rather scrubbed of doubts, warnings, and qualifications.
So, what is the real history of that war? It begins long before Congress voted, even before the 9/11 attacks so often used since then to justify an open-ended “war on terror.” In September 2000, prior to Bush’s installation in the White House, Dick Cheney commissioned a strategy paper by the Project for a New American Century. This telling document asserted that “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Persian Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” It also pointed out that the public would not agree to a war unless there were a “catastrophic and catalyzing event -like a new Pearl Harbor.”
During the 2000 campaign, Bush and Cheney presented a very different agenda, criticizing the idea of nation-building and, in Cheney’s word, any moves suggesting that “we were an imperialist power.” As soon as the new Pearl Harbor presented itself, however, the entire administration united behind a series of arguments favoring war, all of which were eventually proven false. By the way, things like bringing democracy to Iraq, transforming the Middle East, and permanently installing U.S. forces were not on that list.
Were lies told? Frankly, the Bush administration cared not, since many of the war’s architects were admirers of philosopher Leo Strauss, a great believer in the usefulness of lies in politics. Secrecy and deception, a veritable culture of lies, are necessary, he argued, to protect “the wise” — those with a natural right to rule — from the vulgar masses, who would otherwise be ungovernable and rise up against them. He calls such tactics “noble lies,” the grease of aggressively nationalistic politics.
“Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” Strauss once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united — and they can only be united against other people.”
This neatly explains not only why and how the nation was misled into war, but also why the administration continues to aggressively attack its critics and defend the war. Lying is more than an occasional option for such leaders, it is essential, as is an endless supply of enemies, both abroad and at home.
Originally written in 2005 for Vermont Vanguard, Toward Freedom,The Baltimore Chronicle and other outlets.