No doubt, the George W. Bush administration botched the intelligence that justified much of its push into Iraq. The narrative of “Bush lied, people died,” is nonsense of course. The problem was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bluffed his own generals and aides. When Americans tapped into their phone calls, they heard Saddam’s lieutenants discussing such weapons as if they had them, and when American spies debriefed their Iraqi counterparts, there was no sign of deception because many of the defectors believed the information they conveyed. Nevertheless, critics of the Iraq war are absolutely correct to say that the fact that the intelligence turned out to be wrong undercut American credibility on the world stage. The next time some future Colin Powell goes before the United Nations to reveal a case for war or for anything else utilizing American intelligence, conspiracy theorists will have a field day.
When it comes to lost credibility, the corrosive effect of the Iraq WMD debacle is an order of magnitude below the damage to American credibility caused by America’s callous disregard for its allies. In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless. So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense. The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments. I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis, too, express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.
What self-described realists misunderstand when they pursue their cost-benefit analysis without emotion or regard for principle is that friendship and trust have value. In one chapter of Dancing With the Devil, I explore the history of intelligence politicization. Iraq may now be the marquee example upon which many progressives seize, but intelligence politicization occurred under every president dating back at least to Lyndon Johnson, if not before (the scope of my book was just the past half-century or so). Iraq intelligence was flawed, but the world will get over it, especially since it was consistent with the intelligence gathered by almost every other country and the United Nations. The betrayal of allies, however, is a permanent wound on America’s reputation that will not be easy to overcome.
If only those who condemned Bush’s flawed case for Iraq on the basis of the damage it did to American credibility would speak up now about the importance of keeping promises, then perhaps they could help pressure a White House with whom they are friendly to stop the hemorrhaging of American credibility. That they now remain silent as trust in America plummets, however, suggests that their concern was less America’s credibility and more capitalizing on flawed intelligence to score cheap political points.