The Best Thinking on How We Got into the Iraq Mess

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Art Levine Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly

The best recent article that that looks at the fatal mix of blind ideology and incompetence that led to the Iraq debacle (not counting Jim Fallows' paperback, Blind Into Baghdad), is Mark Danner's remarkable overview of the recent books on our blunders in Iraq in the New York Review of Books. It's called the "War of Imagination" and it's a must-read (it's so long it's worth buying the entire hard copy of the magazine). Some choice excerpts:

Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the Iraq war--how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the government knew very well at the time were mistakes--must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2002 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn. In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power--enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world

He adds later:

Nearly four years into the Iraq war, as we enter the Time of Proposed Solutions, the consequences of those early decisions define the bloody landscape. By dismissing and humiliating the soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army our leaders, in effect, did much to recruit the insurgency. By bringing far too few troops to secure Saddam's enormous arms depots they armed it. By bringing too few to keep order they presided over the looting and overwhelming violence and social disintegration that provided the insurgency such fertile soil. By blithely purging tens of thousands of the country's Baathist elite, whatever their deeds, and by establishing a muscle-bound and inept American occupation without an "Iraqi face," they created an increasing resentment among Iraqis that fostered the insurgency and encouraged people to shelter it. And by providing too few troops to secure Iraq's borders they helped supply its forces with an unending number of Sunni Islamic extremists from neighboring states. It was the foreign Islamists' strategy above all to promote their jihadist cause by provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq; by failing to prevent their attacks and to protect the Shia who became their targets, the US leaders have allowed them to succeed.

To Americans now, the hour appears very late in Iraq. Deeply weary of a war that early on lost its reason for being, most Americans want nothing more than to be shown a way out...

A few days after the Republican defeat at the polls, the President's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, discussing the Iraqi government, put the matter in even starker terms:

"We need to treat them as a sovereign government. But we also need to give them the support they need to succeed because the alternative for the United States, I believe, is truly disastrous.... We could leave behind an Iraq that is a failed state, a haven for terrorism, a real threat to the United States and to the region. That's just not an acceptable outcome."

We are well down the road toward this dark vision, a wave of threatening instability that stands as the precise opposite of the Bush administration's "democratic tsunami," the wave of liberalizing revolution that American power, through the invasion of Iraq, was to set loose throughout the Middle East. The chances of accomplishing such change within Iraq itself, let alone across the complicated landscape of the entire region, were always very small. Saddam Hussein and the autocracy he ruled were the product of a dysfunctional politics, not the cause of it. Reform of such a politics was always going to be a task of incalculable complexity. Faced with such complexity, and determined to have their war and their democratic revolution, the President and his counselors looked away. Confronted with great difficulties, their answer was to blind themselves to them and put their faith in ideology and hope--in the dream of a welcoming landscape, magically transformed. The evangelical vision may have made the sense of threat after September 11 easier to bear but it did not change the risks and the reality on the ground. The result is that the wave of change the President and his officials were so determined to set in course by unleashing American military power may well turn out to be precisely the wave of Islamic radicalism that they had hoped to prevent.

UPDATE: Danner's overview looks at books that chronicle the poor judgements, rigid ideology, arrogance and incompetence of the leadership at the top levels of the government. Those books, and Danner's article, don't examine the role of the press in abetting the Iraq war or provide a blow-by-blow account of the way the administration made its bogus case for war. The best books that do that are Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold.