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Aaron Belkin

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Karl Rove's War

Posted: 03/16/2013 6:34 pm

As we mark the tenth anniversary of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, surely it makes sense to acknowledge the consequences of our conduct, and just this week scholars at Brown University released new estimates of the war's cost in treasure and blood: $6 trillion and at least 190,000 lives lost. The magnitude of these costs makes it particularly important to understand why the nation opted for war, and to consider, in particular, former White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove's contribution to the decision, a contribution that never has attracted much attention.

Although the invasion was not Rove's idea, he could have stopped it, probably with ease. He failed to do so, however, because he anticipated, correctly, that the war would divide the Democrats down the middle, and that the division would benefit the Bush administration politically. An appreciation of the administration's political motivations deepens our understanding of why the debate over whether to go to war was so dishonest, in that senior officials' accurate anticipation of a political windfall reinforced their insensitivity to evidence about risks and costs. The decision for war, in other words, was deeply political and deeply cynical. Explanations of the war that overlook the political dimension are incomplete.

Rove's green light for war

During a November 2003 meeting, I asked a former official with close ties to the Bush administration if the president had approached Rove during internal administration deliberations over whether to invade Iraq. She responded, "Yes, he did," and that Rove had expressed support for the invasion. I asked the official how she knew and she responded that "Rove told me so." Although Rove did not participate in war cabinet meetings, the administration's decision-making process on Iraq was informal, and Rove's direct access to the Oval office provided ample opportunities to communicate with Bush. Rove himself acknowledged in April, 2002 that he "expressed opinions to the president on the Mideast crisis."

The impact of Rove's green light for war must be assessed in the context of his relationship with Bush and his pivotal role in the formulation of administration policy at the time, a role that is sometimes easy to forget given his subsequent departure from the White House and surprising behavior on-air. While it is possible that Bush might have ignored a red light from Rove, I have been unable to find any record of his ever having done so either as Governor of Texas or as president during the first few years of his administration. Rove's biographers noted at the time that "every policy... either goes through, or comes from" Rove.

Bush regularly allowed Rove's views to prevail over positions of other senior foreign policy officials, especially when decisions entailed high political stakes. In June 2001, against Pentagon objections, Rove "took over the simmering issue of U.S. Navy bombing practice of Vieques and engineered the decision to terminate it." After National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced in May 2002 that Bush would not mention a sex scandal among Catholic priests during his meeting with Pope John Paul II, Rove accompanied Bush to Rome to "make sure" that the president discussed the matter with the Pope. In March 2002, Rove played a decisive role in a White House decision to impose import tariffs on foreign steel. And Bob Woodward suggests in Bush at War that Rove put Secretary of State Colin Powell "in the 'icebox'" many times.

Rove has claimed that he was "not deeply involved in foreign policy" and the White House insisted that Rove's impact on national security matters was limited to communicating the president's message and managing relations with domestic groups that maintained an interest in foreign policy. But the veracity of such claims must be evaluated in light of Bush's history of lying about Rove's involvement in his affairs. During his 1978 campaign for Congress, for example, Bush said that Rove had "nothing to do with my campaign." But, as biographer Lou Dubose reports, Rove stated under oath in 1997 that he had worked on the 1978 Bush campaign.

Sometime before finalizing the decision to attack Iraq, Bush asked Rove whether he favored going to war and Rove conveyed his support. Because it is impossible to re-run history, there is no way to ascertain with certainty whether Bush would have taken the country to war in the absence of Rove's green light. That said, some hypothetical claims are more plausible than others, and Rove would have been able to ally with powerful opponents of war in the State Department, uniformed services, and intelligence community. Moreover, whenever political stakes were high, Bush deferred to Rove's judgment, even on foreign policy. As such, the administration probably would have refrained from attacking Iraq if Rove had opposed the decision to invade, made a strong case that war would damage the president politically, and joined forces with opponents in the military, diplomatic, and intelligence establishments.

The perfect wedge issue

Rove supported the decision to invade Iraq because he knew that war would split the Democrats down the middle, and that for as long as the conflict dominated media headlines, the Democrats would be unable to formulate a coherent response to the top story of the day. This was classic divide-and-conquer politics.

Rove's two-decade history of crafting divide-and-conquer strategies in Texas prepared him to grasp the potential for using war to splinter the Democrats when the administration began to consider invading Iraq. Rove's biographers have noted his admiration for Lee Atwater's ability to identify wedge issues. And Bill Israel, Rove's teaching partner in a course on Politics and the Press at UT Austin, told me in 2004 that Rove "certainly talked about wedge issues in some detail" during his lectures.

As a political consultant in Texas since the 1970s, Rove positioned wedge issues such as gun control, civil rights, and flag burning as the centerpieces of numerous successful campaigns that he orchestrated. Israel told me that Rove described building the 1994 gubernatorial campaign against Ann Richards around issues that would "splinter and destroy" the opposition. According to Israel, "His method is, in short, to drive an issue wedge in a different place -- between the opposition candidate and the voters -- effectively sealing off the opposition candidate from its own constituency by redefining all the terms, and then seeking to take the constituency as Rove's own."

Rove's prowess was not simply the identification of wedge issues, but also their framing in highly divisive ways that spotlighted and exacerbated latent rifts in rival coalitions. In the 1990 campaign for Texas Agricultural Commissioner, Rove's television commercial featured opponent Jim Hightower and Jesse Jackson "with their fists aloft in an image seemed designed to coax a recollection of the Olympic black-power salute." Because Texas Democrats had been divided since the late-19th century between a right-wing, segregationist branch and a liberal, modernist faction descended from socialist and populist roots, framing civil rights as a "black-power" issue was an effective tactic for driving a wedge between the conservative and progressive wings of the Democratic party. Rove also used patriotism as a wedge issue during the 1990 campaign by airing a television commercial that appeared to show Hightower burning a flag. One observer noted that "The contest had all the signature marks of an Atwater campaign, including the wedge issues of patriotism and race."

In the case of Iraq, Democratic ambivalence about the use of force explains why the splintering impact of war was a pre-ordained conclusion well before fighting began. Liberal interventionists such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman typically were willing to support the use of force for humanitarian purposes. By framing the proposed invasion in terms of the promotion of democracy, non-proliferation, and human rights, the administration appealed to concerns of liberal interventionists who supported prior humanitarian efforts such as American intervention in the Balkans. Moreover, a long-standing vulnerability to the appearance of weakness on national security affairs meant that many Democrats would support the war.

At the same time, the Democratic party included many anti-militarists who, in the wake of the Vietnam war and other Cold War excesses, abhorred the use of force unless clearly necessary for self defense. The anti-militarist wing of the party feared the malignant underside of American hegemony and opposed military strategies that promoted it. While the majority of Democratic foreign policy elites could be characterized as liberal interventionists, pre-war polls indicated that a portion of the "Democratic street" was much more dovish than the party's leadership concerning the use of force. Because the war against Iraq was pre-emptive and not clearly justified by self defense, it was clear before the first shot was fired that the invasion would antagonize anti-militarists. In addition, concerns about the lack of an exit strategy prompted some liberal realists to ally with anti-militarists in opposing the war.

As the Bush administration contemplated invading Iraq in 2001, it was obvious that a pre-emptive military campaign would splinter the Democrats. A Gallup poll from February 2001, nine months before the September 11 attacks, revealed that 42 percent of Democrats favored invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops while 54 percent opposed. Democrats displayed a greater degree of consensus in favor of attacking in the immediate aftermath of September 11, but by early 2002, Democrats were again nearly evenly divided, and they remained so until the war began in March, 2003 and throughout the first stages of the occupation.

The war's splintering effect on the Democrats was apparent in survey data, political debates, and congressional votes. In April 2003, several weeks after U.S. troops captured Baghdad, 44 percent of Democratic respondents told CBS News pollsters that removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the costs of war, while 47 percent of Democrats disagreed. Seven months earlier, as the Bush administration made its case for war in September 2002, 45 percent of Democrats approved of taking military action against Iraq while 49 percent disapproved. After Congress considered a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq in October 2002, 29 Democratic Senators voted for the measure while 21 Democrats opposed it. In the House, the Democrats split 81 for, 126 against. In each case, the Democrats were divided almost perfectly evenly.

The war's splintering effects were apparent in newspaper headlines such as the October, 2002 New York Times story titled, "Democrats Are Divided in Debate on Force Against Iraq," and even in the gymnastic rhetoric of individual politicians. As one observer noted, "This is especially obvious, and painful, with figures like John Kerry, who has tried to have it both ways. In the run-up to the war, Kerry harshly criticized President Bush for alienating our allies and then voted for the resolution authorizing war. Then he voted against the $87 billion appropriation, complaining that the president lacked a clear postwar plan. As Baghdad plunged into chaos... Kerry began to sound more and more like an antiwar candidate. And then when Saddam Hussein was captured, Kerry criticized Dean for failing to acknowledge the full magnitude of the achievement. It's no wonder that Chris Matthews tied Kerry into a pretzel when he pressed him on ''Hardball'' to supply a 'yes or no answer' on Iraq." When Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean said that capturing Saddam Hussein had not enhanced America's safety in December 2003, Dean's rivals retaliated with scathing attacks on his foreign policy credentials including Joe Lieberman's remark that Dean was "in his own spider hole of denial."

The rift contributed to the almost unprecedented Democratic defeat in the 2002 midterm elections by handcuffing party leaders' ability to craft a winning message. A senior Democratic leadership aide told me that former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was "whip-sawed" between the White House, which questioned Daschle's patriotism following criticism of the administration's handling of the war, and the liberal wing of the party, which encouraged greater resistance to White House efforts. Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer "observed about the Democrats' ambivalence towards war that, The closer it gets to the election, the more the Democrats will be tugged to the left and the more divisive they'll become." He was right.

Why Rove's green light matters

To this day, the debate over the Iraq war remains dishonest. In response to this week's release of Brown University research about the war's costs, former Rumsfeld aide Steven Bucci said that "If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in... Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought it would be short." No, everyone did not think it would be short. On September 26, 2002, at the height of the debate over whether to invade Iraq, 33 of the nation's top international relations scholars published a New York Times statement in which they opposed the war, in part, because, "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state." The administration ignored their statement.

The White House ignored evidence that the war would not work out as planned because Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and advisers surrounding them wanted Saddam Hussein out of Iraq, regardless of costs. And because of the president's personality. And because top officials agreed with Henry Kissinger that, "we need to humiliate them" (presumably Muslims). And because Colin Powell was unable to make the administration pay attention to risks. But the White House also ignored evidence because the official in charge of the president's re-election, a man who was not shy about putting politics ahead of policy and who had unparalleled authority to do so, anticipated correctly that the war would drive a wedge into the heart of the Democratic party.

The administration confidante who spoke to Karl Rove about the Iraq war told me that as the insurrection kicked into high gear, Rove came to have "buyer's remorse." I suspect that families of the 190,000+ people who lost their lives in the war feel the same way.

This post is part of a Huffington Post series recognizing the 10th anniversary of the commencement of the Iraq War.

 

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