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September 14, 2009



"Liberals wanted the US to play the bull to al-Qaeda's matador, charging wherever bin Laden wanted us to."

This is the opposite of the truth. Who dropped the phrase "War on Terror", and who invented it? Who offered, as a key justification for the Iraq war, Saddam's imaginary collusion with Al Qaeda? The Iraq war was Al Qaeda's best recruiting tool for years, the prop that kept it from vanishing from relevance. Fortunately the designated matadors, Zarqawi et al., were too extreme even for Bin Laden, and ruined that chance.

Over and over again when I talk to people involved in the Afghanistan fight - which I did this weekend, for example - they are convinced that we could have made a democracy of it early on, if all the prime resources hadn't been pulled for Iraq. So, Afghanistan offered a fine opportunity to set up Al Qaeda to fight democracy, and with the full force of the US's international moral authority still intact. Instead, we are now known to torture, to kidnap and render, to botch or distort intelligence...

Nathan Smith

re: "Who dropped the phrase 'War on Terror', and who invented it?"

Bush invented the phrase 'war on terror,' it became his calling-card, he couldn't escape from it. It shot up his approval rating to the stratosphere. But what is interesting is that Bush sidestepped the dogged, single-minded pursuit of bin Laden into which the concept of the 'war on terror' seemed to trap him. He hijacked his own war on terror and turned it into a war for democracy. It was liberals, during the Kerry campaign, who then seized on the early, pre-Iraq war on terror as the platform from which to mount resist. Kerry's political gambit has now, unfortunately, come to life as US policy.

re: "Who offered, as a key justification for the Iraq war, Saddam's imaginary collusion with Al Qaeda?"

Nobody: this is a liberal myth. It was the *potential* collaboration of al Qaeda with Saddam that was cited as a major justification for the war. Actual collusion was mentioned rarely and tentatively. The "possible collusion" argument was, of course, perfectly valid, though in itself probably not an adequate justification for the war. Certain idiots who presumably haven't heard of the Nazi-Stalin Pact aver that such collaboration was impossible because bin Laden and Saddam were ideological anathema; collaboration between Baathists and al-Qaedists since the war has disproven this argument completely.

That the Iraq war helped al Qaeda recruit for a while is irrelevant. Nato does not back up his claim that al Qaeda would have "vanished from relevance" without it; this seems unlikely. After all, al Qaeda had been growing before; 9/11 gave them great publicity and surely helped them recruit and would have continued paying off. They encountered some setbacks in Afghanistan, to be sure, but obviously not fatal ones.

re: "Over and over again when I talk to people involved in the Afghanistan fight - which I did this weekend, for example - they are convinced that we could have made a democracy of it early on..."

But it's not clear whether the witnesses to which Nato appeals have any relevant expertise. Just because you've been to Helmand doesn't mean you can reliably construct elaborate counter-factuals about how democracy would have development if factor X had been different. If you think about the "determinants of democracy" worldwide, there's virtually nowhere that's as unpromising as Afghanistan. It's Muslim, which is a big predictor of nondemocracy. It's very poor, another big predictor of nondemocracy. It's extremely ethnically fragmented, another big predictor. It's had decades of civil violence, which is a predictor of future civil violence. It's landlocked, limiting its opportunities for development, and making it harder for the US and NATO to operate there. Also, it's not as if there's any obvious reason why "few resources early on, many resources later" should be a particularly poor strategy for democratization. Why, exactly, is it harder to build democracy in Afghanistan now as opposed to 2002 or 2003? No doubt reasons can be given; and since we can't run the tape again, there's no compelling reason, I suppose for the "it-would-have-been-all-right-if" crowd to give up their point of view. But to the extent that the evidence points to anything, it seems to suggest that democracy in Afghanistan was always pretty unlikely. Iraq was fairly unpromising, too, but much less so than Afghanistan.

Nathan Smith

re: "the full force of the US's international moral authority still intact"

This too needs to be debunked. There was already a rising tide of anti-US sentiment before 9/11, both in the Islamic world (al-Qaeda being a symptom of that) and in the West as well, as represented by the anti-globalization movement. That body of opinion went into hiding a bit in the immediate after 9/11, which was not necessarily a good thing: democracy needs debate and criticism, and I regard the post-9/11 mood of shell-shocked national and international solidarity as a rather ominous phase which Bush's foreign policy revolution fortunately destroyed. Still, to speak of the US's "international moral authority" is a bit unduly flattering. In the eyes of much of the world, we never had any.

Now, when Nato mentions "torture" and "distorting intelligence," this is a bit of a red herring. Abu Ghraib was a case of unruly subordinates, possibly inevitable in a large war-- I don't have the expertise in military administration to judge that-- but certainly not an objective of policy. Generally speaking, torture was part of the 'war on terror,' not specifically related to Iraq. Indeed, the ideological-military contest in Iraq served as a substitute for the kind of needle-in-a-haystack search-and-destroy style war on terror that would likely have demanded, in the long run, a lot *more* torture and/or collaboration with regimes that torture.

The "distorting intelligence" is not a critique of the war, but of the way the case for the war was made. I am not qualified to judge whether the ways intelligence was used in the run-up to the war were responsible or not. What seems clear is that the Bush and Blair administrations, along with just about everybody else, believed Saddam had WMDs-- after all, why kick out the weapons inspectors if he had nothing to hide?-- and if he had (and actually he sort of did: yellowcake, poison gas, etc., but let's go with the usual story that he didn't), that might have provided them with some cheap vindication *ex post facto.* To the extent that the US and UK did distort intelligence, the motive seems to have been to get the UN to endorse the war. Certainly it would have been impossible to sell the war to the UN on the grounds that imposing democracy by force in the midst of the Arab world would force al Qaeda into a fight they couldn't win. Obviously the strategy didn't exactly work: we didn't get the "second resolution," which probably wasn't necessary from a legal point of view but demands for which we to some extent legitimated by seeking one. Since a strategy that doesn't work might have been, *ex ante,* a good strategy, one might still argue that 'distorting intelligence' was a price worth paying to improve our chances of getting a full-fledged UN endorsement for the war. To this there might be both practical and moral objections: morally, it might simply be wrong to lie (but is it wrong to lie to the Gestapo to protect Anne Frank? if not, why is it wrong to lie to the dictators represented at the UN in order to save Iraqis from totalitarianism?); or practically, the reputation sacrificed thereby might be more valuable than the UN endorsement we seek to gain. In any case, all this is pretty irrelevant to whether the war was a good idea *per se.* If 'distorting intelligence' was a bad idea, we could have just invaded with a 'coalition of the willing,' as we ultimately did anyway.

Using intelligence to justify a war was always going to be a very tricky business. It was done badly; but whether it's possible to do it well is anyone's guess. And it's the sort of thing a war on terror is likely to call for, since legal constructs, like the frontiers of Pakistan, say, are going to be constantly used by terrorist groups for protection, you have to either violate international law to go after them or make the case for going after them in legal international fora on evidence that is likely to be shaky. All of this was part of the grim prospect of 'war on terror' that threatened, in 2002/2003 to last for a generation. Fortunately, Bush found a way to change the rules of the game.


Stability and security are big predictors of stable democracy. So are legitimacy. Karzai was a Pashtun with popular support amongst the tribes most suspicious of us, who could also work with Tajiks and Uzbeks. If we had helped him to be effective, we would have had a well-respected, popularly elected member of the problematic majority in charge of midwifing true democracy. In him we - and Afghanistan - had an incredible opportunity. Which went nowhere. We (and the Europeans) failed to give him the security for which he pleaded, and so he ended up wheeling and dealing with warlords.

Yes, Iraq had the advantage of somewhat better education and significantly better technology, but its initial internal politics were actually less promising than Afghanistan.

Also: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6533367.stm
and: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/05/AR2007040502263.html
Bush himself didn't do it, of course, but Rumsfeld and Cheney ran the intelligence off the rail in ways that were criminally irresponsible, and Powell presented a bunch of this "intelligence" in his February brief to the Security Council. It is not 'liberals' fabricating the Bush administration's linking of Saddam and Al Qaeda. It actually happened, repeatedly.

Finally "Certain idiots who presumably haven't heard of the Nazi-Stalin Pact aver that such collaboration was impossible because bin Laden and Saddam were ideological anathema; collaboration between Baathists and al-Qaedists since the war has disproven this argument completely."

Was it impossible? Of course not. Was extensive collaboration plausible? Well, it might seem so if one tends to lump all enemies of the United States together, but generally no, it's not plausible. The relationship between takfiris and fedayeen was always fraught, and they started fighting each other in 2004, not that long after Al Qaeda had established itself as a powerful force in the country. McCain seemed to think it plausible for Maliki of all people to collaborate with Al Qaeda, which is asinine and not a mistake Bush would have made in 2008. But people who don't understand very much about the middle east will certainly find all sorts of implausible links plausible.

To suggest that Saddam would contemplate handing chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda is either ignorant or stupid.

Yes, it was never given as adequate justification for the war, but it did form 10 minutes of a 90 minute presentation - more than a passing mention.

Nathan Smith

Hmm... got off on a tangent. I meant to say also that, while it's true that the polls have shown reduced favorability towards the US in recent years, unless we just want popularity for its own sake-- and no doubt we do, but the weight on this factor should be small even relative to US material interests let alone compared to the broader freedom and prosperity and peace of mankind-- the burden of proof is on those who think this matters. During the Bush years, some of America's alliances were strengthened, e.g., Japan and Israel. In the later Bush years France, Germany, and Canada elected more pro-American leaders. And of course, Bush had excellent relations with the British leader, Tony Blair. Thus, during the Georgia crisis, the West's response was inadequate, but not because of divisions-- the West was pretty much united for Georgia and against Russia-- but because of lack of will power. The recent surge of support for the US in Western European polls tends to underline how transient European anti-Americanism was anyway. But the real question is: did it have any effect? How was the ability of the US to operate in the world hampered by a lack of solidarity from the side of Europe? Actually, the polls are a little hard to interpret: if people become less favorable to "America" because they associate with America with the Iraq war, do they become less favorable to democracy or freedom, or to America-backed international security structures like NATO or SEATO, or to American products or financial assets, or more inclined to join anti-American alliances or get into wars with America? The reader will have guessed the answer: Not necessarily.

Comparing Obama with Bush on the diplomatic front, Obama doesn't seem so far to have developed any close relationships with foreign leaders like those Bush had with Blair or Koizumi. Indeed, it's interesting how some key US alliances, like those with India, Israel, Japan, and eastern Europe, seem to have become a bit more tense lately. Against this it would be hard to point to any alliances that have been strengthened, since by the end of the Bush administration whatever rifts had opened between the US and France and Germany in 2003 seemed to have been largely repaired. What Obama *has* done, for better or worse, is try to repair relations with parts of the world that are largely hostile to the US, such as the Islamic world or Russia. How this works out, we'll see. The aborted "Green Revolution" in Iran makes Obama's eagerness for *rapprochement* with that country more distasteful, and I think it's completely foolish to appease Russia, which will only encourage the worst elements in the Russian nation and polity.

Nathan Smith

re: "Stability and security are big predictors of stable democracy. So are legitimacy."

A social scientist would typically not use something like "legitimacy" as a statistical determinant of democracy, because it isn't something measurable. That makes it easy for a researcher to impose his prejudices on a situation. In this case Nato's claim seems like a dubious one at best. Karzai's government would have been legitimate if NATO could have provided security. But (a) how legitimate, or sustainable, is a government that can't secure its own country but has to rely on outsiders to do it? And (b) was it ever feasible to impose security on Afghanistan? It was difficult enough to do it in Iraq, a far more favorable place for it, being urban/literate/having a history of civil administration etc. We never called the shots in Afghanistan the way we did in Iraq, simply because it wasn't *we* that liberated it but our local (non-Pashtun) allies. Nato's references to Karzai's *personal* qualifications sort of underline my point. In a democracy, leaders need to be *dispensable*: the system needs to be able to generate more of them as needed. That Karzai had to be ethnically Pashtun with such-and-such ties to Tajiks and Uzbeks, etc., just underscores how unlikely it was for Afghanistan to develop a stable, somewhat centralized democracy with multiparty competitive politics.

It's worth noting that even in the far more literate, secular, and developed countries north of Afghanistan, with ethnic ties to it-- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian states-- there's no democracy, but rather, rule by a single strongman.


"Abu Ghraib was a case of unruly subordinates, possibly inevitable in a large war"

Unruly subordinates are indeed probably inevitable. The Brits also had some problems early on. The difference was that when the ICRC complained to them, their leaders listened. Our leaders sent a very different message, which lead to fairly widespread abuses, as General Toguba's report outlined. And was ignored. Only after a frustrated soldier released some images to the press did the story the top told the bottom change. And, of course, the guys at the bottom were generally the only ones punished.

Basically, Abu Ghurayb couldn't have gotten as bad as it did if leadership didn't have a policy of turning a blind eye or worse. MPs, interrogators and other soldiers are continually trained in Army doctrine of detainee treatment and the reasons why you have to adhere to the Geneva conventions. Proper treatment of POWs was/is ingrained in the military culture to the extent allowable by exigencies of the military objective (i.e. making people incapable of fighting as easily as possible). Much of the world, our allies, and especially Iraqi partners, were genuinely shocked to find (at least, they thought) their worst doubts about America confirmed. It lent credence to all the worst stories about Gitmo and Baghram. It is difficult to describe how extremely damaging the Bush administration's nonchalance about torture has been to nation-building and terror-fighting, both of which rely most heavily on the trust of the community. Poor benighted third world people do not only understand force, they understand fairness, and can tell who offers dignity and security. There may be a well of resentment toward the most powerful country on the planet, but it would seem that a great deal of that is actually frustrated hope. If we can deliver, from time to time, then people are willing to risk their lives to help with astonishing frequency.

Nathan Smith

Well, I don't really know enough about this to have an informed opinion, but when Nato writes:

"It is difficult to describe how extremely damaging the Bush administration's nonchalance about torture has been to nation-building and terror-fighting..."

I would really like to see some effort to make a claim like this empirically testable. Data rather than anecdotes; statistics rather than lamentations. As it stands, the very political correctness of the claim makes me suspicious. Let's suppose that Abu Ghraib was unimportant strategically, or even helpful by making US troops in Iraq scarier to the bad guys (though one might still condemn it for moral reasons regardless of how effective it was). Who would have an interest in getting this story out? Nobody. Also, a lot of criticism of the war seems to consist of assigning blame within a huge bureaucracy for failing to perform to standards which do not wholly lack external benchmarks-- thus, Nato compares us to the British-- but which are still hard to define. I'm still inclined to think that while any well-read and intelligent follower of the news over the past few years can form a respectable opinion about whether the war was morally right, or strategically sound, there's probably not a single person on earth who is really qualified to judge whether it was conducted *competently* or not, and certainly the vast majority of people who fulminate about this have no qualifications whatsoever (and are generally just looking for an excuse to distance themselves from a war they initially supported but didn't have the stomach for when it turned out that a war is a war). Myself, I have tried studiously to avoid forming an opinion on the matter, one way or the other.


"Myself, I have tried studiously to avoid forming an opinion on the matter, one way or the other."

Except when it comes to Obama.


Counter-insurgency is not a mysterious undiscovered country, any more than war in general is. Some do it well, and some do it badly, and while it's generally not obvious who had the good judgment ex ante, I think most historians can generally agree that McClellan was a poor fighting general and that Lincoln was a surprisingly capable politician. In fact, I'd say that these facts solidified in contemporary historians' minds rather quickly during and after the war, mainly because they had become so obvious. Perhaps they were not actually qualified to judge McClellan's and Lincoln's conduct, but it would seem that sometimes the preponderance of evidence is such that the impartial can come to some basic conclusions.

Or maybe historical methodology and theory needs a massive revision.

Nathan Smith

But the McClellan/Lincoln comparison is more narrowly strategic or even tactical. How the moral impact of incidents or policies of torture affects "legitimacy" or "moral standing," and how the latter rather abstract assets feed back into the fortunes of battle... that's a much harder question than whether McClellan should have attacked Lee at such-and-such a place and time.

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