Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saddam Hussein

Re: NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

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A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

A USA Today article from 2004 states: “A report from U.N. weapons inspectors to be released today says they now believe there were no weapons of mass destruction of any significance in Iraq after 1994[.]” That report represented a doubling down on the UN’s previous position that Saddam had no active WMD programs, but might still have had unaccounted for chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Americans were beginning to discover and suffer harm from those nonexistent weapons. So much for the reliability of UN inspections.

At the Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports that Karl Rove was the main figure behind the Bush administration’s low-key approach to finding Saddam’s old WMD. The article makes clear three important points. First, many Republicans and Iraq War supporters desperately wanted the administration to go public about the weapons because their discovery constituted an intelligence victory.

Second, according to Dick Cheney’s former advisor David Wurmser, when the WMD were initially uncovered, the administration “quite properly asked it be kept quiet until they track down the source of the weapons so that they can secure it and not tip off Sunni insurgents to go and retrieve them themselves.” Good policy.

Third, as time passed, the administration thought it imprudent to venture a victory lap over this partial victory. In Wurmser’s account, Karl Rove said, “Let these sleeping dogs lie; we have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” To what fight was Rove referring? It was obviously not the fight over the WMD Saddam was hiding. Indeed, as Lake notes, Wurmser,  Rick Santorum, and others were incensed because they wanted this accomplishment to be well known.  No, the administration had lost the fight over the public perception of the war and of the reasons behind it. The antiwar side, including the UN, had successfully revised history in order to pronounce anything but the discovery of an active WMD program a failure. So while Saddam’s old chemical weapons had always been one casus belli, the public had become disinterested. (Similarly, even though Bush’s freedom agenda had been a fundamental element of Iraq’s liberation from the start, the antiwar crowd managed to paint that as an insincere ad-hoc cause once no WMD programs were found.) Was the administration correct in downplaying the chemical weapons? It’s hard to say. With so much else going wrong in Iraq at the time, boasting about this one issue would probably not have played well. But this was no “covered-up” mistake; it was a quiet achievement.

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NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:   Read More

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:  

1. reveal that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs” in Iraq during this period;

2. document the six American injuries that resulted from dealing with these weapons;

3. make the case that because these were “old chemical munitions,”  and not new ones, they reveal the pre-war intelligence failures and false claims of the George W. Bush administration;

4. expose a Bush administration cover-up that led to the mishandling of found weapons and to insufficient care for the American troops exposed.

What to make of all this? First, the report neither broadly vindicates nor broadly refutes Bush’s WMD arguments for invading Iraq. Yes, many of Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were found (as has been public knowledge for about a decade). No, the U.S. did not uncover active WMD programs (which has also been squarely acknowledged throughout this period).

The article does, however, vindicate some administration claims. Chivers goes bizarrely wrong in writing, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” In truth, Saddam’s old chemical weapons were always cited as a danger in the run-up to the war. Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 UN speech making the case against Saddam is explicit on this point. Powell said:

If we consider just one category of missing weaponry–6,500 bombs from the Iran-Iraq war–UNMOVIC says the amount of chemical agent in them would be in the order of 1,000 tons. These quantities of chemical weapons are now unaccounted for. Dr. [Hans] Blix has quipped that, quote, ‘Mustard gas is not (inaudible) You are supposed to know what you did with it.’ We believe Saddam Hussein knows what he did with it, and he has not come clean with the international community. We have evidence these weapons existed. What we don’t have is evidence from Iraq that they have been destroyed or where they are. That is what we are still waiting for.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Colin Powell was obviously talking about the danger of old weapons.

What Chivers fails to relay is that it was the antiwar side of the debate that downplayed Saddam’s old weapons as any kind of problem. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, one of the most outspoken anti-invasion voices at the time, had said, “Even if Iraq had somehow managed to hide this vast number of [chemical] weapons from inspectors, what they are now storing is nothing more than useless, harmless goo.” In the years immediately following the invasion, antiwar figures and media outlets continued to dismiss found chemical weapons as pathetic war trophies.

This makes it hard to credit Chivers’s claim of the Bush administration’s embarrassment. The 5,000 undeclared chemical weapons constitute one of the administration’s few intelligence victories in Iraq. Why, then, the secrecy? Perhaps because Iraq was a leaderless country swarming with jihadists and roiled by civil war, and advertising the amounts and whereabouts of chemical weapons would have made things much worse.

As for the injured Americans, they are first owed our bottomless gratitude. If there is reason to believe that they were unnecessarily exposed to chemical agents or insufficiently treated for that exposure, there should be an investigation and, if necessary, restitution. But six non-fatal injuries in the course of handling 5,000 chemical weapons doesn’t immediately strike me as evidence of gross leadership incompetence.

Here’s what does: Barack Obama withdrew all American troops from Iraq knowing that degraded but dangerous chemical weapons would be left behind. If recent reports are accurate, ISIS has stumbled upon them. Yet Obama’s name appears nowhere in the 10,000-word article.

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Any ISIS Strategy Has to Starve its Finances

Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

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Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

Nevertheless, the Iraq Energy Institute estimates ISIS currently produces about 30,000 barrels per day in Iraq and 50,000 in Syria. At the black market price of $40 a barrel, this equates to $3.2 million a day, or $100 million each month. ISIS militants, however, are hardly specialists in oil production. Even if ISIS managed to take over the Baiji refinery, they would need to hire technical staff or coerce its existing workers. The ISIS oil distribution network is primitive: a coordinated system of 210 trucks carrying oil along ISIS-controlled smuggling routes. Transporting oil via trucks may be far less efficient than using pipelines, but it’s also much harder to track and it still turns a profit.

ISIS cannot export its oil without the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, or perhaps Jordan. Jordan, of course, was the biggest buster of Saddam-era sanctions, largely because it wanted Iraqi oil regardless of the price. Queen Rania has a reputation as a profligate spender whose needs sometimes trump responsible governance and, in this case, diplomacy. When it comes to ISIS, however, Iraqi Kurds are potential middlemen. Kurds have seldom hesitated to do business with anyone, even their sworn enemies. When I sat down with former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani more than a decade ago for a Middle East Quarterly interview, he admitted readily the Kurds’ economic relations with Saddam Hussein, who just 13 years previous had used chemical weapons against a village loyal to Talabani. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam, they found numerous photos and videos of current Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani meeting and discussing business with Saddam Hussein or his young sons. Turkey, of course, can’t even bring itself to call ISIS a terrorist group.

ISIS is a problem that has steadily metastasized. And while President Obama will on Wednesday outline a military strategy to address the ISIS problem, it’s important to recognize that the military component should only be one part of a broader strategy. No end to pressure should be brought to bear on Turkey, which has allowed ISIS free movement across its borders. Turkey’s double game on ISIS and terrorism in general has quickly transformed the putative U.S. ally into “Pakistan on the Med.” And naming and shaming any country buying or selling ISIS oil should also be a no-brainer. There should be no end of efforts to starve ISIS of all oxygen which it requires to exist.

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The Media’s Mindless Iraq War Comparison

There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

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There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

Stelter used yesterday’s show to ask if the media are replaying Iraq by cheerleading for war against ISIS. But after claiming that media personalities are letting themselves be governed not by the facts on ISIS and terrorism but by “their ideological agendas,” Stelter then seemingly demonstrated what he was criticizing by allowing his show to descend into an ideological echo chamber.

Here are the sources around which Stelter constructed his argument.

He began by quoting that most sober of publications, the Huffington Post home-page banner:

Here’s the banner headline on the “The Huffington Post” earlier this week — “Media War Frenzy Like 2003,” now that’s a frightening concept right there.

Frightening indeed. (Though not as frightening as a media critic using a HuffPo banner as the jumping-off point of his analysis.)

Then there’s this bit of overt partisanship and professional score-settling:

One big difference in 2003 is that we had red news on TV – we had Fox – but we didn’t have solidly blue news from MSNBC. It wasn’t a liberal news channel back then. But now it is. Here’s what Rachel Maddow reminded her viewers this week.

Does Stelter, who works for CNN, know CNN exists? It’s unclear. This one’s a two-fer though, as he first pretends broadcast news leaned right–during the Bush administration–and then tosses it over to Rachel Maddow for her take.

And then the closing flourish–here’s how he introduced the last segment on ISIS:

I myself am very concerned about the press provoking panic about ISIS. But I’m keeping an open mind. And earlier when I was in D.C., I asked Ron Fournier what he thought as well as Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the proudly liberal magazine “The Nation.” Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Stelter’s “keeping an open mind,” so he’d like to get some input on whether America is too warmongering from vanden Heuvel, the Kremlin’s American mouthpiece. Fournier, of National Journal, provided the only serious, levelheaded commentary of the show:

I don’t know – that’s a false choice. What’s bad, what’s wrong for journalists to do is at this early stage to conclude anything. To be able to say that we need to go to war now is irresponsible. To say that we can’t go to war now is irresponsible. Because the fact is – one thing Katrina’s right about is – we haven’t asked all the questions yet. And even the President I don’t think has all the answers yet. So, yes, media is clicked to revving (ph) right now, media sensationalize right now, media is – tends to hype any shiny object that comes along right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ISIS is not a threat.

Just because you’re tired of war doesn’t mean there aren’t threats. Stelter at least closed the segment with Fournier, so the show ended on a note of rationality. Otherwise, the segment was a fairly embarrassing display of life in a liberal media bubble.

But there’s another point worth making here about this debate. Stelter seems to think the main difference between today’s ISIS threat and the Iraq war is that now Americans have Rachel Maddow to not watch. But there’s another difference, aside from the mainstreaming of cable leftist thoughtlessness.

The run-up to the Iraq war was consumed by a debate over intelligence. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? What was the evidence? Was it enough to support launching a ground invasion? Of course there were other issues at play, including Saddam breaking the conditions of the original ceasefire and also the regular firing at American pilots patrolling the restricted airspace. But certainly the urgency of the case rested to a great degree on whether the intelligence had it right on WMD.

You could even make the case that that was a factor last year, the last time President Obama wanted to bomb Syria (albeit aiming at the other side). Although the case appeared fairly clear that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on the rebels, the evidence still had to be tallied and analyzed.

That’s not the case here. What media personalities are reacting to is not a hyped future threat but the fact that ISIS terrorists are beheading Americans and sending out the videos of the acts. And the response from commentators has been revulsion–entirely appropriate–not supposed water carrying for intel sources. The comparison is irresponsible and false. If anyone’s allowing their ideology to overtake their news judgment it’s those, like Stelter, brandishing the comparison to the Iraq war.

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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On Casualty Figures in Gaza

The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

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The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.

Sometimes, incompetence and negligence combine to lead to inaccuracy. In 1997, while working in Tajikistan, I met with the head of the Tajik Bureau of Statistics. Tajikistan was in the midst of a civil war and it was the poorest former Soviet republic by far. And yet the Tajikistan Bureau of Statistics was churning out complete datasets, information which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund incorporated into their reports, as would the international press should anything in Tajikistan become newsworthy. When I asked the chief how he managed to do it, he was uncharacteristically blunt. “I make them up,” he told me. But if the U.S. government would give him computers and fund his operation, he could try to be accurate. In the meantime, any report using Tajik statistics would be corrupted by the equivalent of “garbage-in, garbage-out.”

Sometimes, organizations simply don’t care if faulty statistics pollute their reports. The notion that sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children has become part of progressive folklore, a statistic often trotted out to excuse any sort of coercion against dictatorial, anti-American, or rogue regimes. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.

The idea that sanctions were killing innocent Iraqis was the central pillar of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s influence operations. He repeatedly claimed that United Nations sanctions had killed more than a million. There were many groups in the United States which latched onto such figures and amplified them. The U.S.-based International Action Coalition, for example, claimed that the economic embargo upon Iraq had killed 1.4 million people by 1997.

Thousands did die, but not the numbers bandied about in the press and simply because of sanctions: There was plenty of food available; Saddam just refused to allow it to be distributed to Shi‘ites and other populations he disliked. All the while, he exported UN-provided baby formula for profit.

While pundits accepted Saddam’s line and news agencies like CNN dutifully broadcast images of sick and dying children (all the while knowing the inaccuracy of their narrative), Iraq expert Amatzia Baram compared the country’s population growth rates across censuses and found Iraq’s growth rate between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent) and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent) proved that there had been no death on the scale Iraq claimed.

So how did the claim of more than a million sanctions-related deaths in Iraq persist? In 1999, UNICEF released a glossy report that found that sanctions had contributed to the deaths of one million Iraqis. The devil, however, was in the details—and in the UN’s capriciousness. Because the Iraqi government did not give UNICEF researchers free access, UNICEF decided to take statistics provided by Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Health, which it accepted uncritically. More on the whole episode, here. When Saddam Hussein fell, however, and the exaggeration and inaccuracies of the claims of more than one million sanctions-related deaths including 500,000 children was exposed as a fraud, no major outlet bothered to publish a retraction let alone question whether bad statistics were worse than no statistics.

In Gaza, it’s déjà vu all over again. CNN and other outlets cite statistics provided by the United Nations with regard to Palestinian casualties, never questioning where and how the UN was able to gather and confirm such numbers. In reality, the UN simply parroted the figures provided it by Palestinian authorities or Hamas-controlled organizations. While there is no doubt Palestinians have died in the current operations, it seems it’s the Jenin Massacre all over again. Remember that one? Palestinian officials duped the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Samantha Power, and countless European foreign ministries. Nor does the media ever stop and question the notion of civilians to Hamas. Hamas violates the Geneva Convention in that its members do not wear uniforms and it fires from civilian areas. Even Israeli human rights groups—B’Tselem, for example—embrace a restrictive definition of combatant which enables the classification of many Hamas activists as “civilian.” As far as Hamas is concerned, every person not in uniform is a civilian.

There’s a tendency among the media to engage in moral equivalency and promote the idea that the Hamas and Palestinian claims on one hand, and the Israeli narrative on the other are equally valid. This is nonsense, especially given the long history of Palestinian politicization of statistics. This article, for example, decisively shows how the Palestinian Authority manipulates—and in some cases has even recalled—demographic statistics in order to ensure they conform with a political narrative the Palestinian Authority finds expedient and to which American diplomats respond.

More Gazans have died in the ongoing conflict—one their elected government initiated with kidnapping attempts and missile launches—than Israelis, but count me dubious about the numbers of deaths reported in the Gaza Strip. When deaths of non-combatants do occur, that is tragic, but that is also war. To accept such statistics from a terrorist group either directly or laundered through organizations like the United Nations without the capacity for independent confirmation is foolish. It promotes not truth but propaganda. And given previous errors—from a half million dead Iraqi babies to hundreds dead in Jenin—it suggests the media simply does not care to learn from its previous mistakes.

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But I Thought There Weren’t Any Weapons of Mass Destruction…

The latest bad news from Iraq now includes the reports that ISIS have captured one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons facilities at Al Muthanna 45 miles north of Baghdad. Naturally this has caused a certain degree of disquiet, but U.S. officials have reassured that they don’t believe the weapons there are usable and have stressed that it is unlikely that the rebels would be able to use the facilities to produce chemical weaponry. Indeed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki attempted to calm concerns that the Islamists could use the weapons by insisting that “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.” But who ever said jihadis are concerned with safety? If anything the volatility of this material—most of which is currently sealed away in bunkers—surely should only add to our concerns.

Nevertheless, aren’t we forgetting something here? It’s somewhat disorienting to have had ten years of a prevailing narrative that says the public was misled over the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction only to now be told that there are concerns that Saddam’s chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of a group too extreme even for the tastes of al-Qaeda. Perhaps it is quite true that the weapons stored at this site are now too old be used effectively, and perhaps it is also true that the rebels lack the means and the knowhow to convert these materials into something usable, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the Saddam regime couldn’t have eventually turned these facilities around to produce weapons of mass destruction once again.

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The latest bad news from Iraq now includes the reports that ISIS have captured one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical-weapons facilities at Al Muthanna 45 miles north of Baghdad. Naturally this has caused a certain degree of disquiet, but U.S. officials have reassured that they don’t believe the weapons there are usable and have stressed that it is unlikely that the rebels would be able to use the facilities to produce chemical weaponry. Indeed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki attempted to calm concerns that the Islamists could use the weapons by insisting that “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.” But who ever said jihadis are concerned with safety? If anything the volatility of this material—most of which is currently sealed away in bunkers—surely should only add to our concerns.

Nevertheless, aren’t we forgetting something here? It’s somewhat disorienting to have had ten years of a prevailing narrative that says the public was misled over the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction only to now be told that there are concerns that Saddam’s chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of a group too extreme even for the tastes of al-Qaeda. Perhaps it is quite true that the weapons stored at this site are now too old be used effectively, and perhaps it is also true that the rebels lack the means and the knowhow to convert these materials into something usable, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the Saddam regime couldn’t have eventually turned these facilities around to produce weapons of mass destruction once again.

This latest turn in the Iraq crisis further demonstrates a truth about the war in Iraq that can’t be stated often enough: There is a reasonable distinction to be drawn between the still robust case for the overthrow of Saddam and the less defensible matter of how the situation in Iraq was handled following that overthrow. Removing Saddam by no means made the following insurgencies and civil war inevitable. Yes, allied forces failed to fully anticipate what might happen in the wake of totally dismantling the Baathist regime and not adequately securing stability in the country after that. But even with all of that in mind, culpability for the violent sectarianism that now engulfs Iraq has to ultimately be placed with the violent sectarians. A Saddam-free Iraq is not by necessity a war of all against all; the people who live in that country did have another alternative before them.

The reminder of the extensive chemical-weapons facility at Al Muthanna should force us to consider what Iraq would be like today had there been no invasion in 2003. Is it really conceivable that the so-called Arab Spring would have simply passed Iraq by? North of the border in Syria things are just about as bad as they could be and that was without an invasion or any kind of Western military intervention. Indeed, Iraq’s most serious problem right now—ISIS—has mobilized from Syria. And given Saddam’s wild track record of suppressing internal uprisings (often with the use of chemical weapons) can anyone really say that right now Saddam would be showing any more restraint than Assad is?

Saddam may not have had weapons of mass destruction good to go, but we have been reminded that he had maintained the facilities to quite rapidly produce such weapons. The fact that these sites and their lethal materials are now in the hands of ISIS, and indeed that ISIS is racing across Iraqi territory at all, is a sign of just how supremely irresponsible the Obama administration has been. To invade Iraq was in a sense a very great gamble, but arguably one necessitated by circumstance. But to then walk away from Iraq with the job barely half done, as Obama has, is unforgivable.

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Iraq: What We Know Now and What We Knew Then

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

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Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

“Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” his indictment of Bush begins, but the only “given” in 2003 was the exact opposite. All fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States agreed “with high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” So did the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France.

“Given” also that the Democrats would later accuse Bush of lying about this, here is a (partial) list of Democrats who had previously joined in the consensus: Bill Clinton; his Vice President Al Gore; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; his Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In the Senate, there were Teddy Kennedy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, and Bob Graham–not to mention Nancy Pelosi, among scores of others, in the House, as well as liberal papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each and every one of them saw Saddam Hussein as a threat, and they all advocated taking action against him.

“Given” all this, I would go so far as to say that not only was George W. Bush justified in ordering the invasion, but that if he had failed to do so, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.    

As to the other items in George Will’s parade of horribles, they all belong to the period that followed the successful military phase of the invasion itself. I am willing to stipulate that many mistakes were made in the three years that followed, and that the entire operation would very likely have ended in defeat if Bush had not finally found in David Petraeus a general who wanted to win and knew how to do it. The upshot was that by the time Barack Obama took office, American casualties were all the way down, and that the Iraq turned over to him was a country largely at peace and living under a nascent democratic regime. So much for the case for blaming Bush.

Turning now to the case for blaming Obama, a commensurately eloquent one has been made by another old friend of mine, David Pryce Jones, the eminent British authority on the Arab world. After explaining why and how the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS has been able to capture city after city in Iraq and is now only about fifty miles from Baghdad, David flatly declares that “President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell. President Obama has opened those doors.”

Obama evidently now thinks that a de facto alliance with Iran—Iran!—is the way to close those doors, but such an alliance would only guarantee that they would open even wider than they are now. It would also solidify Iran’s influence over Iraq while giving a green light to an Iranian nuclear bomb. 

Alas, none of the other proposals for getting us out of this fix seems fully persuasive. Which means that it may be too late to prevent Iraq from joining Syria as part of a new Iranian empire. It is not too late, however, to keep that empire from building a nuclear arsenal, and neither is it too late to keep Afghanistan from reverting to the al-Qaeda haven it was before 9/11. The problem is that doing those things would require Barack Obama to acknowledge that his policies are exposing us to an infinitely greater danger than we were in before 9/11. In my opinion–and I express it with fear and trembling–it would take something close to a miracle for him to undergo so radical a change of heart and mind. God help us then.

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Liberals Longing for Saddam

When the invasion of Iraq took place, many left-liberal commentators—particularly those in Britain and Europe—had a curious response. Of course they detested Saddam, they assured us, but might it not be the case that Saddam—a strong man—was the only person who could govern “a place like that”? This stunning suggestion that human rights and basic freedom might not be for everyone, that some human beings are just better off under despotism, was shocking then and its shocking to consider now. But for the most part these arguments faded from discussion as a jittery democratic reality got off the ground in Iraq. What good liberal would want to consign the Iraqi people back to the dark days of Saddam? Besides, one got the impression that most of these voices weren’t actually that favorable toward the Baathist regime, they just hated the thought of the use of Western power far more.

Now, however, with Iraq descending into chaos once again—arguably much the result of Maliki’s poisonous sectarian politics—these “liberals” are dusting off those old arguments and wheeling them back out in another attempt to bamboozle a public they’ve already spent over a decade misleading. Yet, one voice has gone much further. Chris Maume, an editor at the UK Independent, who by all accounts spent much time in Iraq during the glory days of Saddam, not only takes this opportunity to sow doubts about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, but even does so by mounting the most astonishing defense of life under Saddam.

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When the invasion of Iraq took place, many left-liberal commentators—particularly those in Britain and Europe—had a curious response. Of course they detested Saddam, they assured us, but might it not be the case that Saddam—a strong man—was the only person who could govern “a place like that”? This stunning suggestion that human rights and basic freedom might not be for everyone, that some human beings are just better off under despotism, was shocking then and its shocking to consider now. But for the most part these arguments faded from discussion as a jittery democratic reality got off the ground in Iraq. What good liberal would want to consign the Iraqi people back to the dark days of Saddam? Besides, one got the impression that most of these voices weren’t actually that favorable toward the Baathist regime, they just hated the thought of the use of Western power far more.

Now, however, with Iraq descending into chaos once again—arguably much the result of Maliki’s poisonous sectarian politics—these “liberals” are dusting off those old arguments and wheeling them back out in another attempt to bamboozle a public they’ve already spent over a decade misleading. Yet, one voice has gone much further. Chris Maume, an editor at the UK Independent, who by all accounts spent much time in Iraq during the glory days of Saddam, not only takes this opportunity to sow doubts about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, but even does so by mounting the most astonishing defense of life under Saddam.

Whitewashing the poverty suffered by most Iraqis compared to the obscene wealth enjoyed by the Saddam’s ruling clan, Maume reflects, “Baghdad was noisy and mucky and full of building sites, but it was bustling and thriving. There wasn’t a huge amount in the shops, but people had all they needed to get by.” Perhaps they did, but you can’t imagine writers for the Independent ever insisting that the underprivileged in Western countries have long “had all they needed to get by.”

Maume writes particularly glowingly about the healthcare available in Iraq, as well as the order and stability compared to today. Back in the good old days it was “a fully functioning state in which it was possible to live a fulfilled life.” Of course Maume wouldn’t be so callous as not to spare a thought for Saddam’s victims; “If you were Kurdish, or a dissident, life wasn’t like that, and I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget their suffering. But by and large, life was OK in Saddam’s dictatorship.” And of course to the estimated 180,000 Kurds murdered by Saddam, one should also add the oppression of the marsh Arabs. But it sounds as if Maume accepts what happened to them as the price for the “benefits” that other Iraqis enjoyed under Saddam. And yet it isn’t hard to think of other despotic regimes where, provided you weren’t the wrong ethnic group, perhaps for a time life was perfectly pleasant for everyone else.

But of course that wasn’t the case in Saddam’s Iraq. Those who point to the violence and anarchy that succeeded Saddam all too easily forget the wars and turmoil that Iraq suffered during Saddam’s rule. In addition to the terrible losses suffered in the course of the lengthy Iran-Iraq war, there was also the blood-letting and mayhem of the Shia part of the 1991 uprising. Indeed, sectarianism in Iraq was not some invention of post-Saddam era. Yet Maume wistfully recalls, “It was a secular state, and Sunnis and Shias seemed to bump along together.”

But even if Baathist Iraq had been a rather more peaceful and prosperous place than it actually was, that doesn’t get around that minor matter of liberty. Maume himself alludes to the censorship, although he doesn’t appear to think truth a necessary ingredient for Iraqi wellbeing: “True, all we had to go on was the English-language newspaper the Baghdad Observer, with its daily cover stories about Saddam’s latest visit to an adoring Kurd village…..but national misery is difficult to keep off the streets, and people seemed happy.”

Whatever one thinks of what has gone on in Iraq post-Saddam, nowhere in the piece does Maume give the impression that in an ideal world the Iraqis should enjoy democracy, freedom, or human rights. Indeed, there is a total absence of the suggestion that such things are human goods, for Iraqis or Westerners; “it was possible to live a fulfilled life” under Saddam, remember. The whole piece reads as a defense of autocracy. So long as people have order and social services, what more could they reasonably ask for? And this from a leading “liberal” newspaper.

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Maliki Must Go

Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

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Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

For example, he argues for “a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and prime ministership,” “a new national-unity government, including a leading Kurd as defense minister and a leading Sunni from one of the opposition parties as interior minister,” and “a constitutional amendment that redefines Iraq’s executive authority, with security and foreign affairs under the president, and the economy and domestic politics under the prime minister.”

These are good ideas but unlikely to be realized, as Pollack himself acknowledges, given the current state of Iraqi politics and given the weakness of American influence in Iraq today. Instead of lobbying for such extensive changes the U.S. might be better off lobbying for a new prime minister. Maliki’s political party came out on top in the April parliamentary elections but it lacks the votes to form a government on its own. It needs the support of other parties, especially other Shiite parties and the Kurds. The U.S. should exert whatever influence it still has to prevent that from happening.

Maliki has presided over the disintegration of Iraq. He doesn’t deserve a third term. The country desperately needs a new leader. Until a change of leadership happens, there is little point in sending more U.S. aid which, if Mosul is anything to go by, is likely to wind up arming the insurgents.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

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Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

In short there are some uncomfortable echoes here with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which, if allowed to stand, would have vastly bolstered Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves. It was not allowed to stand, but the annexation of Crimea already looks like a fait accompli.

This makes it all the more imperative to impose stronger sanctions on Russia to make it more difficult to deploy the technology and resources it needs to exploit its ill-gotten gains.

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Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

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Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

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Why Forfeit Leverage on Iran?

If there’s one thing that hampers American policy, it is our general lack of strategy. As the National Security Council has transitioned into yet another bureaucracy, it has forfeited its main function to enforce policy discipline and shape interagency strategy. Too often, we forfeit leverage which, at any rate, too many in the State Department consider a dirty word.

Iran’s latest economic reports suggest that the United States should have much more leverage on Iran than many in the White House and State Department recognize. On Sunday, the Statistics Center of Iran released economic growth figures which confirm that the Iranian economy shrank 5.4 percent last year. Meanwhile, the Iranian Student News Agency has reported that liquidity has increased 670 percent during the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the Statistics Center has also reported that the July-August 2013 inflation rate in rural areas was 42.6 percent, with the 12-month inflation rate at 41.4 percent. Both imports and exports are down according to the Iranian Customs Administration.

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If there’s one thing that hampers American policy, it is our general lack of strategy. As the National Security Council has transitioned into yet another bureaucracy, it has forfeited its main function to enforce policy discipline and shape interagency strategy. Too often, we forfeit leverage which, at any rate, too many in the State Department consider a dirty word.

Iran’s latest economic reports suggest that the United States should have much more leverage on Iran than many in the White House and State Department recognize. On Sunday, the Statistics Center of Iran released economic growth figures which confirm that the Iranian economy shrank 5.4 percent last year. Meanwhile, the Iranian Student News Agency has reported that liquidity has increased 670 percent during the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the Statistics Center has also reported that the July-August 2013 inflation rate in rural areas was 42.6 percent, with the 12-month inflation rate at 41.4 percent. Both imports and exports are down according to the Iranian Customs Administration.

The Iranian economy is more than ever dependent upon oil exports. According to Majlis Research Center head Ahmad Tavakoli, per capita reliance on oil revenue under Ahmadinejad was $890. In contrast, the figure was $364 under Khatami, $384 under Rafsanjani, and $608 during the Iran-Iraq War. Subsidies payments are leading to a $40.4 billion deficit.

It would be wrong to blame sanctions for such a dire economic picture: Most of Iran’s economic woes stem from the incompetence of the Islamic Republic. However, it would be even more counterproductive to throw the Iranian regime a lifeline. If the Iranian economy is as bad as Iranian technocrats say it is, then now is the time for more pressure, not less.

Only twice in the Islamic Republic’s history has its leadership reversed course on core policies. The first was about what it would take to release the American hostages. It was not Carter-era persistent diplomacy which forced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to change his mind, but rather Saddam Hussein: Iraq’s invasion had raised the cost of Iran’s isolation considerably. The second time was with regard to what it would take to end the Iran-Iraq War. After continuing the war six years after first considering an end in 1982, Khomeini finally accepted a ceasefire, likening it to drinking a chalice of poison.

The Iranian government has now filled its own cup; perhaps it’s time with even more robust sanctions to force the regime to take a sip.

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

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Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.

And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:

Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….

“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….

In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with ­rocket-propelled grenades.

It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept.

Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:

I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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Which Iraq Model Is Obama Replicating in Syria?

If Obama is pursuing the Iraq model, it is certainly not one of active intervention in the manner of George W. Bush in 2003. That direct military intervention is off the table is, of course, a good thing. The United States has no direct interests in Syria. Stymieing Iranian influence and cutting off Hezbollah is a noble goal, of course, but there are much more direct ways of doing so without involving U.S. forces in the Syrian quagmire.

There are two other Iraq models, however. The first is the no-fly zone, a precedent which the U.S. and its allies imposed over northern Iraq in 1991. It was under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Iraqi Kurds were successfully able to build their own alternative to Saddam Hussein. After more than two years of preventable slaughter, the Obama administration has finally begun to consider imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “Considering” in governance parlance, of course, is one of two ways the White House countenances doing nothing while pretending to do something (the other is attending conferences). Had Obama blessed a no-fly zone two years ago, it might have decided the outcome in Syria before the Syrian opposition radicalized to the degree that it poses as much of a threat to U.S. interests as Assad himself.

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If Obama is pursuing the Iraq model, it is certainly not one of active intervention in the manner of George W. Bush in 2003. That direct military intervention is off the table is, of course, a good thing. The United States has no direct interests in Syria. Stymieing Iranian influence and cutting off Hezbollah is a noble goal, of course, but there are much more direct ways of doing so without involving U.S. forces in the Syrian quagmire.

There are two other Iraq models, however. The first is the no-fly zone, a precedent which the U.S. and its allies imposed over northern Iraq in 1991. It was under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Iraqi Kurds were successfully able to build their own alternative to Saddam Hussein. After more than two years of preventable slaughter, the Obama administration has finally begun to consider imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “Considering” in governance parlance, of course, is one of two ways the White House countenances doing nothing while pretending to do something (the other is attending conferences). Had Obama blessed a no-fly zone two years ago, it might have decided the outcome in Syria before the Syrian opposition radicalized to the degree that it poses as much of a threat to U.S. interests as Assad himself.

Alas, Obama appears intent on another Iraq model, also dating from 1991. As Operation Desert Storm concluded, President George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop to visit workers at a Raytheon plant in Massachusetts, but his real audience was the Iraqi people. “Compliance with the resolutions will instantly stop the bloodshed,” Bush declared, before adding, “And there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”

What followed is perhaps one of America’s most shameful episodes in the Middle East: The Iraqi people rose up in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 governorates but, rather than support them, Bush stood aside, a move which realists applauded as “sophistication.” It was not. By allowing Saddam to re-consolidate control, Bush set the stage for a far bloodier scenario twelve years later. By turning his back on the Iraqi Shi’ite opposition—and make no mistake, the Iraqi Shi’ites are not naturally pro-Iranian—he allowed the Islamic Republic to fill the void and train refugees into what would become the core of the Shi’ite militias which have consistently undermined U.S. interests. Bush gave every Iraqi reason never again to trust the United States or the American people.

That Obama upholds the elder Bush’s callousness in Syria as a model suggests that he has not the grasp of history he believes he does, and that historians will look back at Obama’s studied indifference as a watershed moment from which a far bloodier episode entangling America will arise.

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Baghdad: What Might Have Been

My favorite museum in London is without doubt the Soane Museum. Born in 1753, John Soane started his career as a bricklayer, but quickly established himself as an architect and as an eclectic collector, gathering everything from sarcophagae to clocks to nineteenth century latches, weights, and even nails. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he was commissioned to build some of London’s finest neo-classical structures. His best-known work was the Bank of England building, although much of it was destroyed in an early twentieth century renovation. Many of the other structures he designed were never built, owing to the interruption of and financial drain caused by the Napoleonic Wars.

That didn’t stop Soane from painting his monumental structures, not only depicting them as new but also speculating how they might look centuries into the future if in ruins. (A stroll through his cluttered former house—packed so full with antiquities that many of the paintings are hung on hinged panels and can only be seen if the panels are opened exposing the other side—is an experience that won’t be forgotten).

It’s against the backdrop of the window Soane provides into a London that never came to be that this article about a Baghdad that likewise never came to be is so fascinating:

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My favorite museum in London is without doubt the Soane Museum. Born in 1753, John Soane started his career as a bricklayer, but quickly established himself as an architect and as an eclectic collector, gathering everything from sarcophagae to clocks to nineteenth century latches, weights, and even nails. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he was commissioned to build some of London’s finest neo-classical structures. His best-known work was the Bank of England building, although much of it was destroyed in an early twentieth century renovation. Many of the other structures he designed were never built, owing to the interruption of and financial drain caused by the Napoleonic Wars.

That didn’t stop Soane from painting his monumental structures, not only depicting them as new but also speculating how they might look centuries into the future if in ruins. (A stroll through his cluttered former house—packed so full with antiquities that many of the paintings are hung on hinged panels and can only be seen if the panels are opened exposing the other side—is an experience that won’t be forgotten).

It’s against the backdrop of the window Soane provides into a London that never came to be that this article about a Baghdad that likewise never came to be is so fascinating:

Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium was born during Iraq’s post-Second World War renaissance, when the country was flush with cash from its oil concessions. The country’s ruling elite were desperate to trade their Mesopotamian past for a modern identity. King Faisal II was the third and last of Iraq’s kings, and ruled from 1939 until 1958. He created a Development Board that would invest the country’s petrodollars into massive infrastructure projects and redevelop the city to create a cosmopolitan centre of the Arab world. The board envisaged a set of landmark buildings designed by high-profile international architects. The design for Baghdad University was awarded to Walter Gropius, an opera house to Frank Lloyd Wright, a museum to Alvar Aalto, a sporting facility to Le Corbusier, and the Development Board headquarters building to Gio Ponti… Wright’s opera house was to be built on an undeveloped island, which he planned to name the Isle of Eden, located on the Tigris. The building would perch on a hilltop surrounded by a pool and gardens. His “Plan for Greater Baghdad” also included a cultural centre, a university and a theatre.

My first impression of Baghdad in 2003—before the ubiquitous blast walls went up—was what a depressing city it was, and that impression has not changed. Kanan Makiya—more famous for his books chronicling Saddam’s tyranny—was at his most concise and interesting in The Monument which chronicled how Saddam Hussein sought to remake Baghdad and, more broadly Iraq, in an equally grandiose if not tasteful manner.

This transformation he never completed because of years of war and sanctions, although some of the monuments (and, indeed, his palaces) litter the Green Zone. Baghdad is now starting to change once again for the better, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, as Iraqis gaze back at how history might have treated their city had it not been for the revolutions in 1958 and 1968, and the wars which followed, it will be hard for them not to be depressed, far more so than Londoners were when myriad wars changed George III’s priorities. In Baghdad, at least, the scars of dictatorships past continue to scar the land and will do so for many decades more.

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WMD Deterrence in Syria

There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.

The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.

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There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.

The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.

With all the hoarding of weapons we have seen over decades in repressive countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria, at the moment of truth, the main use for such weapons (Assad in 1982 against the Muslim brothers in Hama, Saddam in the 1988 Anfal campaign to exterminate the Kurds and 1991 against Kurds and Shi’ites) was against domestic opponents, not foreign enemies.

Whether Syria’s use of sarin gas against its own people still requires conclusive proof, one can be sure that sooner or later, Middle East regimes will always turn their weapons against their own people. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tours the region offering weapons deals to U.S. allies, we should take note of that and remember that countries like Saudi Arabia will have less scruples using American weaponry to kill their own internal dissidents if need be than to contain Iran. And that while U.S. weaponry sold to Egypt might not give the Egyptian military a qualitative edge of Israel’s might, it will certainly facilitate the crushing of dissent in future disturbances.

Given that Middle East dictators have only balked at the use of weapons against their own people when the army refused to shoot–not out of any moral qualms–when it comes to WMD arsenals, that also means that unscrupulous rulers should never have access to WMD’s–watch Syria, think Iran.

Pre-emptive action against any further recourse to such weapons is therefore imperative–not just on humanitarian grounds, but also on deterrent ones.

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In Syria, an Alternative Iraq

In all the discussion of the Iraq War’s 10th anniversary it seems nearly everyone has missed the most glaringly relevant detail. George W. Bush went to war to avoid in Iraq exactly what we see today in Syria: an uncontrollable mass-casualty conflagration ignited by the collision of Ba’athism, jihadism, and weapons of mass destruction. Things didn’t go as planned, but the idea was laudable and prescient.

In September 2003, explaining the importance of deposing Saddam Hussein, Bush stated: “The deadly combination of outlaw regimes, terror networks, and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be wished away. If such a danger is allowed to fully materialize, all words, all protests, will come too late.” Clearly the notion of a dullard! But speaking of too late, here’s Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird talking to the Globe and Mail a few days ago:

“A big concern is the chemical weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands” amid the chaos as rebels fight to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Baird said in an interview. “We wouldn’t want to see an al-Qaeda affiliate getting a hold of this or Hezbollah get a hold of it.”

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In all the discussion of the Iraq War’s 10th anniversary it seems nearly everyone has missed the most glaringly relevant detail. George W. Bush went to war to avoid in Iraq exactly what we see today in Syria: an uncontrollable mass-casualty conflagration ignited by the collision of Ba’athism, jihadism, and weapons of mass destruction. Things didn’t go as planned, but the idea was laudable and prescient.

In September 2003, explaining the importance of deposing Saddam Hussein, Bush stated: “The deadly combination of outlaw regimes, terror networks, and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be wished away. If such a danger is allowed to fully materialize, all words, all protests, will come too late.” Clearly the notion of a dullard! But speaking of too late, here’s Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird talking to the Globe and Mail a few days ago:

“A big concern is the chemical weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands” amid the chaos as rebels fight to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Baird said in an interview. “We wouldn’t want to see an al-Qaeda affiliate getting a hold of this or Hezbollah get a hold of it.”

No, we wouldn’t. And yet we find ourselves able to do little more than wish it away. The 70,000 dead, the mounting reports of chemical weapons, the latest Assad crime, the newest jihadi faction, the increasing regional instability—it’s all beyond our control, and expected to continue indefinitely. Perhaps Bush was onto something with that unhinged “preemptive” talk. Post-Saddam Iraq is littered with disappointments, but the Ba’athist country we didn’t invade and occupy has become the scene of this decade’s biblical slaughter. And, as Bush predicted, “all words, all protests” kind of feel “too late.”

But having limited options for intervention in Syria makes it safe for pop-culture voices to express outrage over American inaction. The Onion has published a few satirical pieces savaging Obama with headlines like “’Syrians’ Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight” and “Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People.” Yet for all its moral preening about stopping murderous dictators the joke paper only ever treated Iraq with stories like this: “Bush Says He Still Believes Iraq War Was The Fun Thing To Do.”

Doubtless it’s too much to ask the Onion’s one-note wiseguys to identify in Syria a could’ve-been Iraq. But it shouldn’t be so hard for the rest of us to see. 

Barack Obama, unlike the Onion, is consistent. He didn’t think Iraq (before or after Saddam) was much of his business and he’s not likely to do a lot for Syrians if it means missing a spot on a late-night chat show.

In the years since Obama has been in office, deliberate American neglect has allowed Iraq to unravel. This, in combination with the inability to stop the carnage in Syria, is threatening to undo what achievements still stand. “The Americans…left behind remnants of their occupation. Now is the phase of removing them,” Saad Sami al-Obeidi tells the Wall Street Journal today. Obeidi is a Sunni radical who, along with hundreds of thousands of Sunni protestors and dozens of terrorists, hopes to destroy Iraq’s fragile democracy. “The protest movement, now in its fourth month, has drawn inspiration from events in Syria,” according to the Journal’s Sam Dagher.

For the time being, Iraq’s American-made institutions continue to hold some appeal even among disgruntled Sunnis. They “remain divided on whether to reform or abolish the democratic process that put the country’s Shiite majority in power,” writes Dagher. But with an absentee superpower and a spiraling Syria anything could happen. If Iraq follows Syria down the sinkhole, chalk it up to Barack Obama’s bringing the war “to a responsible end,” as promised.

The conservative handwringing on the decade anniversary of the Iraq War has been a little much. Republicans have gone from criticizing Obama’s foreign policy for being too politically pandering to criticizing Bush’s as being insufficiently so. Yet Bush saw years ahead the collision of forces that would threaten global stability for the duration of our lifetimes. He made big, well-documented mistakes in trying to do something about it. No, there were no WMD in Iraq. But the incorrect belief that there was figured into the thinking of those who supported the war and those who opposed it. If chemical weapons are being deployed in Syria now, those who wanted to stay out of Iraq will unfortunately get a clearer understanding of what they were willing to tolerate. Ten years after the Iraq War and two years into the Syrian free-for-all, Bush’s effort looks far more noble than the alternative. 

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The Iraq War and the Arab Spring

Did the invasion of Iraq lead to the Arab Spring? As a supporter of the operation to topple Saddam Hussein, I would like to think that it rippled outward to topple indirectly other noxious dictators from Gaddafi to, one hopes, Assad. But I remain unconvinced by the case made by the prominent former Iraqi dissident and author Kanan Makiya in this New York Times article.

Makiya makes many excellent and important points in the course of his analysis, but there is no direct evidence he can cite of the connection between the Arab Spring and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed he has to concede: “Few of the brave young men and women behind the Arab Spring have been willing to publicly admit the possibility of a link between their revolutions and the end of Mr. Hussein’s bloody reign 10 years ago. These activists have for the most part vigorously denied that their own demands for freedom and democracy, which were organic and homegrown, had anything to do with a war they saw as illegitimate and imperialistic.”

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Did the invasion of Iraq lead to the Arab Spring? As a supporter of the operation to topple Saddam Hussein, I would like to think that it rippled outward to topple indirectly other noxious dictators from Gaddafi to, one hopes, Assad. But I remain unconvinced by the case made by the prominent former Iraqi dissident and author Kanan Makiya in this New York Times article.

Makiya makes many excellent and important points in the course of his analysis, but there is no direct evidence he can cite of the connection between the Arab Spring and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed he has to concede: “Few of the brave young men and women behind the Arab Spring have been willing to publicly admit the possibility of a link between their revolutions and the end of Mr. Hussein’s bloody reign 10 years ago. These activists have for the most part vigorously denied that their own demands for freedom and democracy, which were organic and homegrown, had anything to do with a war they saw as illegitimate and imperialistic.”

Given the lack of statements from Arab Spring leaders crediting the U.S. invasion as their inspiration, what evidence is there of its wider impact? Makiya writes: “After 2003, the edifice of the Arab state system began to crack elsewhere. In 2005, thousands of Lebanese marched in the streets to boot out the occupying Syrian Army; Palestinians tasted their first real elections; American officials twisted the arm of Hosni Mubarak to allow Egyptians a slightly less rigged election in 2006; and a new kind of critical writing began to spread online and in fiction.”

The problem is that the timing does not line up. The U.S. invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003. The Arab Spring did not occur until 2011. In the meantime Iraq was devastated by deadly civil war, which was hardly an advertisement for what happens after you topple an Arab strongman. The clearest example of Iraq inspiring change elsewhere was probably in Lebanon where the short-lived Cedar Revolution took place, as Makiya notes, in 2005. But elsewhere it is hard to find much positive impact from the events in Iraq. It might have been different if the U.S. had done a better job of preparing for a post-Saddam status quo.

But while America made grievous mistakes in Iraq, the way the county has turned out is not all our fault. One of Makiya’s most powerful points is to warn against the “hubris” of thinking “that what America does or doesn’t do is all that matters. The blame for the catastrophe of post-2003 Iraq must be placed on the new Iraqi political elite.” He is right. In fact the surge in 2007-2008 bought the Iraqi political elite another chance, but my concern is that they are now blowing this opportunity, with the country regressing into the soft authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite sectarian supporters.

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