Blogs > Liberty and Power > THIS WEEK'S WISDOM

Feb 1, 2004 3:17 pm


With bombings in the Kurdish sections of Iraq killing more than 50 people, and another US soldier killed near Baghdad, Super Bowl Sunday is not off to a good start. There were, however, some words of wisdom spoken on"This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Among those joining regulars Farid Zakaria and George Will were former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

With the whirlwind surrounding the David Kay pronouncements on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Hussein's Iraq, Zakaria emphasized that the US"made worse-case assumptions." Sounding a bit like Ayn Rand, who always argued that evil was impotent, that authoritarian states enshrined the rule of mediocrity and incompetence, surviving as parasites on freer nations, Zakaria stated:"We assumed that because this was an evil regime, they must be incredibly competent. They must be so smart. This was, in a way, a mirror of the mistake we made with regard to the Soviet Union." It turns out, of course, that the Soviet Union was collapsing internally, from a massive brain drain, just as the right Iraqi hand didn't know what the left one was doing.

Given the current political atmosphere, however,"the truth of the matter has been [that] for the last thirty years, the CIA has been battered by neoconservatives for being soft on the Soviets, for being soft on the Chinese," Zakaria argued."It turned out that in most cases, the CIA estimates were not as far off as the neoconservative fantasies about Soviet strength and Chinese military strength."

Holbrooke, who supported the President's calls for"regime change," now questions the rush to war and the timing of the Iraqi incursion."Had we known the truth," Holbrooke stated,"I would have still supported efforts to change regime. But I and many other critics of the administration always thought the timetable was weird; it was based on weather-driven factors. They had the build-up in the desert too early. They didn't want to leave the troops at a cost of $2 billion a month sitting in the desert for the long, hot summer. All of that was, in retrospect, a tremendous error in judgment. And it has left the administration with a fractured alliance, a growing anti-American sentiment in the whole Muslim world, from Iraq to Indonesia. ... And now ... the whole premise of preemptive war has been shattered, 'cause it must be based on iron-clad empirical data. 'We gotta hit them before they hit us.' It turned out they couldn't have hit us."

For those in the administration who now argue that the Iraqi campaign has put fear in the hearts of Libyans, Iranians, and others, Geoge Will says that the massive blow to credibility over WMDs has also been a massive blow to the strategic doctrine of preemption. Potential rogue nations will question whether the US will ever again have the willingness to engage in a preemptive strike. For"the doctrine of preemptive war, whatever else it presupposes, presupposes a certain threshold of certainty about what you're preempting." And the US, says Will, has not reached that threshold.

Holbrooke interjected that now that"the weapons of mass destruction assumptions [have been proved to be] completely wrong," fundamental changes must take place. The central problem is that the"people who got this wrong are the people still doing it in regard to the other members of the 'Axis of Evil' [Iran and North Korea]." They were claiming"the discovery of a weapons system which didn't exist, on the basis of which the President asked us to go to war."

And so, Holbrooke has called for an independent commission"to get to the bottom" of this intelligence failure. Good luck, Richard! The administration is looking to pull the plug on the 9/11 commission; they aren't going to be too happy to set up another commission during an election year to investigate this fiasco. But Holbrooke is right; this kind of investigation"must be done rapidly and openly. It is of the highest importance because we cannot afford to have an intelligence community that can make this kind of mistake. ... We mustn't let this happen again."

All of this, of course, is based on the assumption that"mistakes were made." It begs a more troubling question: Did the administration"sex-up" the data simply because it had every intention of invading Iraq, even prior to the horror of September 11th? On this issue, it would take more than a commission to reveal the truth.

George Will points to two ironic implications of the Iraq incursion. First, Will says,"the big winner from all this is the U.N., not just because the weapons inspectors may have done better than we thought. But also because, ineluctably, the Bush administration is now driven to say: 'Never mind the weapons of mass destruction. The war was justified because [the Iraqis] were in violation of umpteen-million UN resolutions.' Which means: A conservative administration has gone to war saying it was justified to strengthen the UN as the arbiter of international behavior."

Second, George Bush has bared his Wilsonian soul. Indeed, Will characterizes the Bush presidency as"the third-term" of the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Both Bush and Wilson have ultimately justified war"to install a transformative regime." Bush thinks this new"democratic" regime"is going to transform the region. Now, that's ambitious," says Will."I think it's mistaken."


The discussants agree that, with mounting Kurdish and Sunni problems, and with opposition growing from the Ayatollah Sistani and the Shi'ites, the situation is close to"spiraling out of control," as Zakaria put it. The short-term goal for transference of power by July 1, as outlined by the Bush administration, is most likely unreachable. As Will puts it, the political pundits couldn't grasp the reality of the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primaries; there's no possibility that they'd be able to grasp the immense complexity of the political situation in Iraq. It took the US a while to write its own constitution, Will reminds us, after having had a long experience with the Articles of Confederation, and the whole thing nearly unraveled in the 1790s. Sounding ever like the Hayekian, Will worries that the US policy planners are exhibiting a bit too much intellectual hubris in the democratic nation-building department.

Let's hope that those Hayekian unintended consequences don't make today's deaths a picnic by comparison.

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