Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq war

The 2016 October Surprise Already in the Works

The term “October Surprise” has its origins in a ploy by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to announce just days before the 1972 election that peace was at hand in Vietnam, thus fulfilling Richard Nixon’s pledge from years prior to end the war and deflating the campaign of Democrat George McGovern.

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The term “October Surprise” has its origins in a ploy by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to announce just days before the 1972 election that peace was at hand in Vietnam, thus fulfilling Richard Nixon’s pledge from years prior to end the war and deflating the campaign of Democrat George McGovern.

The true popularity of the term, however, dates to a conspiracy theory espoused by Gary Sick, a Carter administration National Security Council aide. Sick suggested, without really any evidence at all as a congressional investigation subsequently determined, that the Ronald Reagan campaign conspired with Tehran to undercut the release of U.S. hostages and so undermine Carter’s chance to resolve the Iran hostage crisis in the days before the 1980 election. The theory was nonsense. Sick repeatedly contradicted himself and falsified what little evidence he did have. When challenged by journalists and congressional investigators on other key points, Sick was unable to substantiate his charges, although he presumably made a lot of money in the interim though book sales.

It has now become a regular feature of elections to have enterprising journalists or politicos with whom they sometimes collaborate to drop a bombshell story shortly before elections with the goal of swaying it. By the time the truth behind the sometimes sensational charges becomes clear, those who planted the stories hope that it will be too late for the target of their opprobrium.

Just days before the 2000 presidential election, for example, a prominent Democratic politician in Maine revealed that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in that state nearly a quarter century before. That didn’t sway the election, but it might have if a few thousand more voters had latched on.

And, in October 2004, eight days before the U.S. presidential election, the New York Times reported that looters had made off with 380 tons of explosives after U.S. forces had failed to secure Iraq’s Al-Qa’qaa military facility. The implication, of course, was that Bush administration incompetence was contributing to the deaths of Americans at the hands of a growing insurgency. After the election, it turned out that much of the reporting about Qa’qaa was inaccurate.

And, just four days before the 2008 election, news broke that Senator Barack Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyang was an illegal immigrant living in Boston.

So what will the 2016 October Surprise be? Keep a look out for the “Iraq Inquiry” or so-called Chilcot Report. Against the backdrop of the Iraq War’s (and George W. Bush’s) deep unpopularity, Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed John Chilcot, a former British civil servant with significant experience in Great Britain’s intelligence service, to head an inquiry into the origins of the 2003 Iraq War. Chilcot and his staff interviewed dozens of British officials, as well as a handful of American officials. As often occurs in such cases, limiting the witnesses to a relatively narrow subset of officials enables the Commission to direct its conclusions in the direction which the politicians or officials involved in the inquiry wish.

Most British officials expect that, when the Iraq Inquiry is released, it will add sustenance to the conspiracies surrounding the Iraq War. Indeed, in Great Britain, some of these conspiracy theories are already being treated as fact in mainstream newspapers. Some of those interviewed in the United Kingdom either have political axes to grind, bucks to pass, or were philosophically opposed the Iraq war. Former Cabinet Minister Clare Short, for example, has called the Iraq war illegal and has said that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet was misled into thinking it was legal. (Short also accepted money from Hezbollah’s television station, according to British press reports; perhaps that suggests ideological slipperiness rather than a search for truth).

The Americans interviewed are a more limited lot. They skew to the State Department and studiously avoid most Defense Department civilians at any level, from the Secretary of Defense on down. But, as everyone knows from the Iraq Study Group or the UN’s various investigations into Gaza, such reports are often written to fulfill political goals. They uphold the maxim, garbage-in, garbage-out, although a few more ego-driven witnesses will trade the bragging rights of having been called for the drawback of allowing their names as witnesses to lend superficial credibility to the report.

While the last interviews occurred in 2011, Chilcot has repeatedly delayed the release of the report to the growing frustration of many among Britain’s political leadership. On June 17, 2015, he announced yet another delay. Indeed, it now looks like Chilcot might not release his report until sometime next year. Now, here’s the catch. A quick glance of the American interviewees shows that some are among the advisors to leading Republican presidential candidates.

It will be very hard for a candidate like Jeb Bush, for example, who has already stumbled over the Iraq war question, to dismiss a report unfairly castigating his brother if that report’s conclusions bashing the White House and the George W. Bush administration are based upon the testimony of a key member of his brain trust. But, whomever the candidate is, let us hope they use the next year to prepare for the poison that may emanate from London shortly before Americans head to the polls.

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Can Hillary Face the Truth About Iraq?

In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

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In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

What West is saying reflects little more than battlefield reality—the hard logic of war that can’t be wished away with airy political rhetoric. And it is a reality acknowledged even by some prominent Democrats such as Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense who is widely believed to be a leading candidate for secretary of defense in a Hillary Clinton administration. She told CNN, “We need to provide more stuff for training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level. We need to provide more fire power support, more intelligence surveillance ….” She further called for “providing operational support on the battlefield. Enablers, air cover and so forth.” That certainly sounds like a commitment greater than the one President Obama has made, which Flournoy criticized for being “under-resourced.”

It would be interesting to hear what Hillary Clinton thinks of Michele Flournoy’s observation. Clinton has recently said, “I basically agree with the policies that we are currently following,” adding, “There is no role whatsoever for American soldiers on the ground to go back, other than in the capacity as trainers and advisers.”

Clinton is, of course, trying, as best she can, to eradicate memories among Democratic voters of how she supported the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 before jumping ship to opposing the surge. That may be good politics in a Democratic primary—but it’s bad policy. The same could be said of her refusal to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord that she supported as secretary of state.

The hope of Clinton’s more hard-headed supporters—including, one suspects, Michele Flournoy—is that she is merely throwing out political red meat to win the White House and that once in office she will tilt to the center. But if Clinton won’t utter unpleasant truths in a laugher of a primary, in which her closest rival is Bernie Sanders, there is good cause to wonder if, once in office, she will take hard, unpopular but necessary actions—such as allowing U.S. personnel in Iraq to take the calculated risks necessary to beat the Islamic State.

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Are Americans Prepared to Let ISIS Win?

The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

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The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and most of the coverage focused, as it has always done, on the American evacuation of Saigon and the stories about the last people to escape the city as it fell to North Vietnamese troops. For the most part, the American memory of the war ends at that point with little if any thought given to the question of what happened to the country after the U.S. gave up. The horrors of the “re-education” camps and the ordeal of the boat people have largely slipped down the collective memory hole. Though some writers, such as Norman Podhoretz tried to address the moral questions raised by the communist victory, as far as the overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned, Vietnam no longer existed once the war ended. We washed our hands of it as if blaming the Vietnamese people more than the U.S. leaders who had plunged the nation into the war for the suffering that America had endured during the long conflict.

I reference this disturbing fact because the current debacle with ISIS and the general indifference toward it here raise the question of whether Americans are going through a similar process with respect to Iraq. It would seem obvious that during a week when it appears that a loathsome Islamist organization is taking control of places like Ramadi for which Americans fought and bled only a few years ago that we would be intensely debating the wisdom of President Obama’s efforts to make good on his pledge to defeat ISIS. But there’s no sign that the White House feels any particular pressure to reassess its half-hearted approach to the war.

As was true of Vietnam, the overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans as well as Democrats — have now come to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion was a mistake. Though the world is better off without a monster like Saddam Hussein and, as some GOP candidates have pointed out this week, the decision was reasonable given what we knew then, few now think it was a good idea. Indeed, given the rise of Iran as its rival collapsed, it’s possible to argue that the horrors of Saddam’s regime notwithstanding, the war hurt U.S. security in the long run. If the current debate about the war’s origins are any indication, it will take a lot more videos of ISIS beheading or burning hostages to galvanize Americans into thinking they ought to do something more to stop it. The trauma of the war is such that the success of the surge that won the war in 2007 and 2008 after initial setbacks and the subsequent spectacle of Iraq’s collapse after President Obama pulled U.S. troops seems to be less important in the minds of much of the press and the people than the pointless finger pointing about what happened in 2003.

Seen in that light, it appears a lot of Americans would like Iraq to fade from our consciousness, as Vietnam once did, like a bad dream. But the problem with that attitude is that while the atrocities visited on the Vietnamese people by the communist victors in that war were awful, they were largely contained to a Southeast Asia that America could afford to ignore even during the Cold War. Not even genocide in Cambodia rattled Americans enough to revisit their decision to forget about that war. So, too, many of us may think we can do the same in Iraq regardless of how bad thing might be as it falls into the hands of ISIS or Iran’s allies.

Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is located in the middle of one of the most strategic regions in the world. As ISIS has proved as it branches out to Libya, it cannot necessarily be contained in Iraq and Syria. Nor can an Iran that is, thanks to President Obama’s desire for détente with the Islamist regime, prepared to compete with ISIS for regional hegemony, leaving moderate Arab nations and Israel to look to their own defenses.

Like it or not, Iraq can’t be as easily put in America’s rear-view mirror as Vietnam was. If President Obama can’t be motivated to do more than to contain ISIS or minimize its gains, his foreign policy legacy will be a disaster that will bedevil his successor and the people of the Middle East. Unlike that triumph of North Vietnamese communism that Norman Podhoretz rightly decried but which did not prove to be a strategic threat to the U.S., an ISIS victory will be a catastrophe. Though Americans may still prefer to pick at the scar of our misguided decision to enter the war, eventually they’re going to have to come to grips with the need to win it or pay the consequences.

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Was the Iraq War a Mistake?

It’s become the gotcha question for Republicans seeking to win their party’s nomination for the 2016 presidential campaign: Knowing what we know now, would you have ordered U.S. forces into Iraq?

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It’s become the gotcha question for Republicans seeking to win their party’s nomination for the 2016 presidential campaign: Knowing what we know now, would you have ordered U.S. forces into Iraq?

Max Boot has tackled the question here, in short arguing that the situation the world faces in Iraq today was not inevitable but was rather the result of subsequent poor decisions, such as President Obama’s decision to order a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq.

That’s all true, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s face it, the intelligence was largely wrong. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell did not lie, however. The root of the problem was two-fold: First, Saddam Hussein bluffed so convincingly that his own lieutenants believed he had an active WMD program. Therefore, when the CIA or DIA debriefed defectors, they did not register as deceptive when they spoke about WMD. Their accounts also reinforced intercepts and other signals intelligence. Because the faulty intelligence became a political football, there still has been no sustained effort to prevent such a problem from reoccurring.

But, what is absolutely certain and incontrovertible is that all the documents seized from Saddam Hussein’s government upon its collapse showed that the Iraqi leader planned to reconstitute his weapons programs as soon as sanctions collapsed. There is no arguing this point. The idea that Bush’s choice was to go to war or continue the status quo is false, as the status quo was collapsing. If Bush did not act militarily, Iraq might very well have the most robust unconventional arsenal in the Middle East. So, when presidential candidates say they would not in hindsight have made the same decision that Bush made, they are effectively saying they would have acquiesced to an empowered Saddam with weapons of mass destruction.

What about some of the other issues? Would Saddam have been a force for stability? He would have been 78 years old and, given the prevalence of heart disease and diabetes in Iraq (they were the leading causes of death even under sanctions), it’s not clear he would be alive today. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ruled Syria with as much of an iron hand, and that did not immunize Syria from the winds of the Arab Spring. It must be nice to believe that Saddam was some smiling strongman who would have steered Iraq clear of the troubles sweeping the region, but it would also be nice to believe in unicorns. Bashar al-Assad was once considered a smiling strong man–and a reformer to boot–a notion that seems ridiculous given his use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people.

Would the Islamic State have existed if the United States had not gone to war? Saddam Hussein turned toward religion and privileged radical clerics in the wake of his defeat in Kuwait. That’s the time when he put “Allahu Akbar” on the Iraqi flag and commissioned a Koran made from his blood. According to the State Department Human Rights reports, Fedayeen Saddam was rampaging through Baghdad beheading women it accused of loose morals in the years before the U.S. invasion. And then, of course, there was the case of Laurence Foley, a U.S. diplomat assassinated in Amman in 2002 on the orders of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man responsible for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State. Foley’s assassination shows the group to have been active before the war.

It is embarrassing that Governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, and others are so ill prepared for the Iraq War question, but it is also embarrassing that the media also conflates so many decisions about the Iraq war into one. First, there was the decision about whether to use military force to oust Saddam. (My take: the right call). Second, there was the decision about whether to replace Saddam with a more democratic structure or his sons or a strongman general (My take: Bush made the right call). Third, was the decision about whether to spend tens of billions seeking to reconstruct and develop Iraq (My take: huge mistake). The world is better without Saddam. Most of the Iraqi deaths following the invasion were caused not by the United States but by the terrorists and Iranian-backed militias whom American forces were fighting. George Bush understood that the proper course of action, as the “Iraq war mistake” question implies, was not to give those terrorist free reign over Iraq. It is sad that so many Democrats and now Republicans give in to what amounts to a journalistic auto-da-fé in which candidates accept a twisted and inaccurate narrative imposed by journalists guided more by politics than fact.

Secretary of State John Kerry, while running for president, famously said he was with the war before he was against it. What a sad reflection about America’s politics that now an entire class of Republican candidates are so unprincipled and unaware of what Saddam’s own documents show his intentions to have been that they effectively hold Kerry up as the standard to emulate.

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Focus on Obama’s Terrible Iraq Blunder

I remember walking down the ruined streets of Ramadi in the spring of 2007. The vista resembled pictures of Berlin in 1945: ruined buildings everywhere, water bubbling in the streets from water mains damaged by too many explosions. But what was most remarkable was not the evidence of violence but, rather, the fact that no insurgents were shooting at my military escorts or me.

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I remember walking down the ruined streets of Ramadi in the spring of 2007. The vista resembled pictures of Berlin in 1945: ruined buildings everywhere, water bubbling in the streets from water mains damaged by too many explosions. But what was most remarkable was not the evidence of violence but, rather, the fact that no insurgents were shooting at my military escorts or me.

“A few weeks ago you couldn’t drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs,” Army Colonel John W. Charlton told me as we drove into town in his up-armored Humvee. But now Ramadi was eerily quiet; by the time I visited in April, not a single American soldier had been killed in Ramadi for weeks. Everywhere there were Joint Security Stations and Observation Posts where American and Iraqi security forces worked side by side to keep the peace.

Ramadi was really where the Anbar Awakening began—the movement, started by Colonel Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006, to mobilize Sunni tribes against AQI. After having lost hundreds of American soldiers in Ramadi and its environs since 2003, US efforts finally appeared to have paid off. AQI had been routed of the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and would soon be routed out of the rest of the Sunni Triangle. Victory was in sight.

It is all the more heartbreaking, therefore, to read now that the Islamic State—AQI’s successor organization—has seized the government center in Ramadi. Islamic State extremists detonated a series of suicide car bombs on Thursday to punch their way through fortifications protecting the government headquarters. Reports were that, after the headquarters fell, black-clad fanatics were going to door-to-door, executing tribal fighters who opposed their onslaught. Government security forces and many civilians were fleeing in panic. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute points out, it’s as if the Marines, having taken Iwo Jima, had abandoned it and the Japanese had lowered the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi.

Just a month ago, when the ISIS offensive against Ramadi began in earnest, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to reassure the world that it was no big deal. Ramadi, he claimed, “is not symbolic in any way…. I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.”

We can only watch and wait to hear what spin General Dempsey—who has increasingly defined his role as telling the president what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear—will put on this latest catastrophe. It is, in fact, unspinnable. The fall of Ramadi is a sign of the abysmal failure of the misnamed Operation Inherent Resolve launched by President Obama in August 2014 to “degrade” and ultimately to “destroy” ISIS.  Operation Uncertain Resolve is more like it.

There is no doubt that US bombing has succeeded in slightly degrading ISIS—Central Command helpfully puts out a long laundry list of all the buildings and vehicles its aircraft have blown up. But there is scant sign that ISIS is on the path to destruction. True, its offensive toward Baghdad has been blunted and it lost control of Tikrit. But the fact that the assault on Tikrit was led by Shiite militiamen under the effective control of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, indicates the self-defeating nature of this offensive. Sunnis will never turn on ISIS, as they turned on AQI in 2007, if by doing so they will open themselves to domination by Shiite militias.

A reminder of what that would mean was delivered earlier this week in Adhamiyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. Shiite mobs, with Shiite militiamen allegedly in the lead, rampaged through the area on a pogrom. As terrified Sunni families cowered in their homes, a number of homes were burnt and at least four people were killed. The security forces of a Shiite-dominated government were nowhere to be seen.

“Leading from behind” is a bad enough strategy when America’s allies take the lead. It is an utterly ruinous strategy when America’s enemies take the lead. But that’s what is now happening in Iraq.

Obama has sent fewer than 3,000 trainers and they are confined to base and prohibited from going out and directly recruiting, training, and arming Sunni tribesmen. Nor, of course, are they allowed to personally call in air strikes from the frontlines; they have to depend on Iranian-dominated Iraqi security forces and aerial imagery to tell them what to bomb. US aid flows through the government of Baghdad, which, despite a change of prime ministers, remains for the most part dominated by Iran and its proxies. Instead of trying to rebuild the Iraqi army, shattered by the fall of Mosul nearly a year ago, the Baghdad regime is encouraging the recruitment of Shiites into sectarian militias closely aligned with Iran. In the guise of fighting ISIS, Iran is taking over most of Iraq.

The fight against ISIS is in even worse shape in Syria where there is no credible ground force—none—that can challenge Islamic State, which is why its domains have actually expanded since US bombing began last August. The US is only now training a company—i.e., roughly one hundred men—from the Free Syrian Army in the hope that somehow they will be able to defeat Islamic State’s army, which is estimated to number more than 20,000. That kind of thing happens in action flicks like “The Expendables” or “The Dirty Dozen,” not in real life.

Far from being on a path to defeat, ISIS appears stronger than ever notwithstanding the anemic American assault. And yet all last week presidential candidates have been forced to opine on a historic question—whether or not they would have authorized the invasion of Iraq given all that we now know. The real debate we should be having is not what we should have done in 2003 but what we should do now, today, to defeat ISIS and Iran—the twin forces, mirror images of one another — that are ripping the Middle East asunder. All of the candidates, including the silent Hillary Clinton, need to tell us what they would do.

And President Obama, who remains commander in chief, needs to go on television and explain to the American people where the war effort stands and what if anything he is going to do differently.  If the answer is “things are going fine” and “we’re not going to do anything differently,” he will be repeating the very mistake that President George W. Bush made from 2003 to 2007 when he was lulled by over-optimistic reports from PowerPoint-happy military commanders. A losing war effort only began to reverse itself in places such as Ramadi once Bush acknowledged that we were on the edge of the abyss.

Today we are fast falling into an ever worse abyss—and it is one to which, by all indications, President Obama and his senior military commanders and civilian aides are utterly blind. Perhaps we should be talking about that rather than about what happened 12 years ago.

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The False Iraq War Gotcha Narrative

Jeb Bush caused a kerfuffle with his answer to a question on Fox News Channel about the Iraq War. Megyn Kelly asked him: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” He answered:  “I would have. And so would Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. So would have everybody that was confronted by the intelligence they got.” They would have if they had the intelligence. That’s not saying everybody would now. News flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”

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Jeb Bush caused a kerfuffle with his answer to a question on Fox News Channel about the Iraq War. Megyn Kelly asked him: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” He answered:  “I would have. And so would Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. So would have everybody that was confronted by the intelligence they got.” They would have if they had the intelligence. That’s not saying everybody would now. News flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”

Various commentators on left and right have pounced on this answer even though it was pretty obvious that, as he later clarified, Bush misheard—he was clearly saying he supported the invasion based on “knowing what we knew then,” rather than “knowing what we know now.” Bush subsequently said it was a “hypothetical” question that he couldn’t answer. The other Republican candidates, on the other hand, are all generally saying they wouldn’t have supported the war in hindsight.

No one’s asking me, but I would like to try and answer anyway. It’s not an easy question but it’s one I’ve pondered, having been one of many who supported the war effort. I can’t tell the candidates what to say but I can tell you what my own thinking is.

If I had known exactly how the war would turn out—with American troops being pulled out prematurely, leaving Iraq to the tender mercies of Iranian militias and ISIS—I would not have supported the invasion. It’s a close call but Saddam Hussein’s regime, bad as it was, was probably preferable to the current situation in Iraq as long as sanctions remained in place. At least Saddam was a bulwark against Iranian expansion.

And I would never have supported military action against Saddam in the first place if I didn’t believe, in common with the leaders of the United States and all of our allies and even Saddam’s own generals, that he had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was an evil ruler but the U.S. can’t simply go around using its military power to knock off every dictator on the planet—there has to be a specific threat to U.S. national security to justify military action and absent the WMD (and the lack of any verifiable links between Saddam and al Qaeda) such a threat was absent.

But even after the U.S. went in based on false intelligence (which, as the Robb-Silberman commission found, was the fault of the intelligence community and not the White House), it would still have been possible to turn Operation Iraqi Freedom into a net positive—if, that it is, it had actually delivered Iraqi freedom rather than chaos.  Despite numerous missteps in the early going from 2003 to 2007, the “surge,” which President Bush courageously ordered in 2007 in the face of nearly total opposition, actually made it possible to imagine that the administration’s high hopes for Iraq might be vindicated.  Violence fell by more than 90 percent and Iraqi politics began to function again. In 2010 Vice President Biden, no less, even bragged that he was “very optimistic” about the outcome in Iraq.

That optimism was shattered by two of the Obama administration’s disastrous decisions: first, the move to back Nouri al Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister after the 2010 election (even though he was not the top vote getter; Ayad Allawi was); second, the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement in 2011 to keep US troops in Iraq. Both of these miscalculations paved the way for the rise of an Iranian-dominated sectarian regime in Baghdad that victimized Sunnis and sparked a backlash in the form of ISIS. The situation was further aggravated by President Obama’s failure to do more to help the moderates in Syria’s civil war—that left Syria wide open as a staging ground for ISIS to launch an offensive into Iraq which conquered much of the Sunni Triangle.

In short, Iraq didn’t have to become the disaster it is today. Better decisions between 2003 and 2010—e.g., sending more US troops to keep law and order in 2003, not disbanding the Iraqi army in 2003, not pursuing de-Baathification as avidly as the Coalition Provisional Authority did, not backing Maliki for reelection, not pulling U.S. forces out in 2011—could very well have produced very different results. Iraq could have emerged as a contributor to regional stability rather than as a breeding ground of extremism. And while the Bush administration bears the blame for the disasters of 2003-2007 (as well as credit for the near-miraculous turnaround of 2007-2008), the Obama administration bears the blame for the post-2011 disasters. Unfortunately the U.S. left Iraq just as badly as it entered it—with no plan in either case to stabilize an inherently volatile situation.

An honest accounting thus leaves plenty of blame all around—it doesn’t feed a simple “gotcha” narrative where supporters of the invasion were all evil and opponents of it all good. The lesson of Iraq? In the future hawks should be more careful about advocating military action (especially the toppling of foreign leaders without a good day-after plan) and doves more careful about advocating pullouts once intervention has taken place. Unfortunately more recent experience in Libya (where the Obama administration helped topple a dictator without any day-after plan) and Afghanistan (where Obama is planning a pull-out at the end of 2016 with reckless disregard for the likely consequences) shows how hard it is to act on the lessons of history, even very recent history.

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Jeb’s Defense of W Isn’t Wrong, Just Not What GOP Needs

Liberal pundit Roger Simon was aiming for a cheap laugh when he wondered whether Jeb Bush had been “dropped on his head as a child” in a Politico piece in which he skewered the presidential contender for comments made last week about Iraq and other remarks in which he said his elder brother George would be his top adviser on the Middle East. According to Simon and most of the left, the only thing for which George W. Bush should be remembered is a disastrous war in Iraq. But even for those who don’t view things from the same partisan liberal perspective as Simon, Jeb got himself in trouble by defending the decision to invade Iraq. That since-corrected statement can be defended as can the notion of W being a good man to have as an adviser on U.S.-Israel relations. But the problem for Jeb isn’t that what he said about Iraq and foreign policy isn’t entirely or even mostly wrong. It’s not. The catch is that this exchange reminds Republicans of the two major reasons why nominating Jeb may not be such a hot idea: the dynasty problem and the fact that it would give Democrats a chance to run again against the former president rather than having to defend the records of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

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Liberal pundit Roger Simon was aiming for a cheap laugh when he wondered whether Jeb Bush had been “dropped on his head as a child” in a Politico piece in which he skewered the presidential contender for comments made last week about Iraq and other remarks in which he said his elder brother George would be his top adviser on the Middle East. According to Simon and most of the left, the only thing for which George W. Bush should be remembered is a disastrous war in Iraq. But even for those who don’t view things from the same partisan liberal perspective as Simon, Jeb got himself in trouble by defending the decision to invade Iraq. That since-corrected statement can be defended as can the notion of W being a good man to have as an adviser on U.S.-Israel relations. But the problem for Jeb isn’t that what he said about Iraq and foreign policy isn’t entirely or even mostly wrong. It’s not. The catch is that this exchange reminds Republicans of the two major reasons why nominating Jeb may not be such a hot idea: the dynasty problem and the fact that it would give Democrats a chance to run again against the former president rather than having to defend the records of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Let’s specify first that Jeb clearly blundered when asked by Megyn Kelly whether, given everything we know now, whether he would support the invasion of Iraq. Instead of acknowledging the mistakes that were made and the fact that weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, Bush answered a different question. He said that placed in that moment again with what he knew then, he would still have backed the idea and that Hillary Clinton (who voted for the war and defended it for years until it became too unpopular to do so) would have too. He’s right that most leading figures in both parties supported the war at the time. It’s also both unfair and untrue to claim that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence or that they cooked it to justify their goals.

Moreover, Jeb was right to note that the surge ordered by his brother in 2007 retrieved a dangerous situation. The sign of a true leader is the ability to admit a mistake and then change course to achieve the objective, something our current president is incapable of doing. When W left office in January 2009, Iraq was a war that had been won, something that the Obama administration acknowledged. If Iraq is back to being a disaster today, it’s solely the fault of President Obama whose decisions led to a wrongheaded evacuation of American troops that created the vacuum into which ISIS moved in recent years.

Let’s also acknowledge that contrary to Simon’s snark, George W. Bush is a good suggestion for someone to consult with about the U.S.-Israel alliance. When Obama came into office he said the reason for the stalemate in the Middle East was that Bush was too close to Israel. By establishing more daylight between Israel and the United States he thought he could achieve peace. But six years of constant fights with Israel that have led to open threats about the administration abandoning Israel at the United Nations haven’t brought us closer to peace. To the contrary, the daylight Obama sought encouraged more violence and Palestinian intransigence. More importantly, Obama’s decision to try for détente with Iran has alienating all of America’s allies in the region, the Arab states as well as Israel. For all of the abuse hurled at W from the left, the Middle East he left us looks pretty good in comparison to the chaos Obama has enabled.

But even if everything Jeb said about his brother is true, and most of it is, that doesn’t really help his cause.

The isolationist moment in American politics that seemed to give Senator Rand Paul a shot at the nomination has passed. Support for a foreign policy that seeks to exert American influence and defend its interests is important to most Republican primary voters and Bush has certainly articulated well thought out positions that will win him votes. But though a lot of Republicans are happy to defend the honor of W or even Dick Cheney against leftist slanders, that isn’t really the conversation anyone in the GOP wants to have right now.

To be fair to Jeb, it’s not as if he has gone out of his way to start this discussion. The comments about W and Israel were generated by the anger among many members of the pro-Israel community (and not just the billionaire that owns casinos) about former Secretary of State James Baker’s attacks on the Jewish state. The longtime faithful Bush family retainer is listed as one of Jeb’s advisers. Bringing up W was the only way he had of disassociating himself from Baker without actually throwing him under the bus.

But bearing the Bush family name brings with it clear disadvantages as well as benefits. Republicans know they’ll be better off nominating someone from a more humble background who can’t, as Mitt Romney was, be portrayed as a heartless plutocrat. Just as Hillary will carry around a lot of negative baggage, Jeb can’t escape the tired, old and deeply destructive arguments about Iraq. He may be a candidate who brings experience as a governor and well considered policy positions on both domestic and foreign issues. He’s also shown a willingness to and avoid flip-flopping even if it means daring the base to oppose him on immigration and the Common Core education standards. That illustrates character if not always the best political judgment.

But his greatest problem remains the challenge of trying to be the third president Bush. It’s certainly possible for him to overcome that obstacle. But whether or not it is fair, this latest kerfuffle illustrates how great the burden that W’s record will be for Jeb.

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Bush’s Mistakes Don’t Excuse Obama’s

As reports of former president George W. Bush’s criticism of his successor’s Middle East policies at a supposedly off-the-record Republican Jewish Coalition event this past weekend spread from Las Vegas, the reaction from many in the mainstream media and Obama administration supporters (but, of course, I repeat myself) was to demand where the 43rd president got off bashing the 44th? In the view of a lot of Americans, including a great many who are not on the left, Bush should have not have broken the general silence he’s observed about President Obama’s policies since leaving office. To them, Bush’s decision to go into Iraq was a colossal blunder even if they don’t buy into the canard about him lying to the American people about the justification for that move. If Obama has made mistakes in the Middle East, they claim they were built upon the foundation of error that Bush created. But the problem with the reaction to this story is that it is more of a reflection of the free pass Obama has gotten on the foreign-policy disasters that he has presided over than a reasonable judgment about Bush.

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As reports of former president George W. Bush’s criticism of his successor’s Middle East policies at a supposedly off-the-record Republican Jewish Coalition event this past weekend spread from Las Vegas, the reaction from many in the mainstream media and Obama administration supporters (but, of course, I repeat myself) was to demand where the 43rd president got off bashing the 44th? In the view of a lot of Americans, including a great many who are not on the left, Bush should have not have broken the general silence he’s observed about President Obama’s policies since leaving office. To them, Bush’s decision to go into Iraq was a colossal blunder even if they don’t buy into the canard about him lying to the American people about the justification for that move. If Obama has made mistakes in the Middle East, they claim they were built upon the foundation of error that Bush created. But the problem with the reaction to this story is that it is more of a reflection of the free pass Obama has gotten on the foreign-policy disasters that he has presided over than a reasonable judgment about Bush.

Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s spokesman in the White House and conducted the interview of the former president at the RJC event, later claimed that the 43rd president was not directly criticizing his successor. But that is as unconvincing as the group’s expectations that no one in the closed door event would blab to the press about what Bush said. Though the remarks were quite mild when compared to some of the things former Vice President Dick Cheney has said about Obama, there’s no evading the fact that what Bush reportedly said was a pointed attack on the 44th president’s policy decisions on Iran as well as his failure to defeat ISIS.

The question is, does Bush have standing to take potshots at Obama?

The argument against him speaking out rests on one crucial decision: Iraq. Even if President Obama’s defenders were willing to admit that he made mistakes in Iraq that allowed ISIS to rise, they can claim with some justice that none of it would have happened if Bush hadn’t invaded.

On Iran, Bush’s critics also have a point. The Bush administration never prioritized the Iranian nuclear threat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to have occupied most of his attention in the region. Bush outsourced diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran to America’s European allies with predictably dismal results. He also discouraged Israel from taking any action on its own. Though Bush is right about Obama’s naïveté in dealing with the Iranians, there’s no doubt that the issue has always been a top priority for this administration.

But even if we concede these points, none of this excuses the blunders that Obama has made on his own. Nor do they give us a reason to silence Bush.

On Iraq, there’s no question that most Americans believe the war was a mistake. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that virtually everyone was sure were there (because we knew and now had evidence of the existence of these programs) still rankles. The loss of life was devastating and what followed in Iraq is nothing for Americans to brag about. Moreover, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein did empower Iran just as most Israeli experts warned Bush it would.

But if we are discussing what brought about the current chaos in Iraq and the fact that ISIS now controls much of its territory as well as a lot of Syria, the blame belongs to Obama, not Bush.

What the current president’s defenders keep forgetting is that the Iraq he inherited from Bush was not the chaos and horror that characterized the early years of the war. By January 2009, the surge Bush ordered in 2007 had decisively defeated the terrorists. When Obama bragged that he had ended the war and that America could safely withdraw its forces, it was because Bush had finally won it after some early and costly missteps. The Iraq that we see today with ISIS running riot and Iran dominating what’s left is solely the fault of Obama. It was his foolish decision to completely withdraw all U.S. troops that created the vacuum that ISIS and Iran filled.

In the war against Islamist terror, it was Obama who wrongly boasted that al-Qaeda was defeated because of Osama bin Laden’s death. Neither he nor his defenders can blame the spread of terror throughout the region on Bush when they were the ones telling us in 2012 that Obama had vanquished the threat.

As far as Iran is concerned, say what you will about Bush’s negligence on the issue. But at least he never appeased Iran or gave it permission to continue a nuclear program that may well produce a bomb either by cheating on Obama’s weak deal or by abiding by it and waiting patiently for it to expire.

But there’s a broader point to be made about the willingness of liberals to still blame everything that’s wrong in the world on Obama’s predecessor.

Bush made mistakes, and perhaps the world have been better off had he not invaded Iraq. Then again, we don’t know what mischief Saddam Hussein might have accomplished had he remained in power over the past decade.

More to the point, in the aftermath of 9/11 Bush was presented with a clear and present danger to the United States. Instead of waiting for the next attack, he took the war to the enemy. Not everything worked out as he hoped and, in fact, some things turned out very badly indeed. But America did not suffer another 9/11 as most people expected it would in the days after that attack. The world he left Barack Obama was one in which the nation’s enemies were on the run. If he feels dismay about the chaos that Obama’s negligence in Iraq and foolish appeasement of Iran has created, who can blame him?

Instead of continuing to treat the 43rd president as a punch line, perhaps it’s time to start honestly evaluating the disastrous record of the 44th. If we do, and I suspect future historians will do just that, then Bush’s criticisms of Obama will be viewed very differently.

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The Last Time Iran Lied

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

Too often, presidents enter the Oval Office convinced that the failure of diplomacy rests more with their predecessors than with their adversaries. Obama is no exception. The State Department meanwhile has not, in the last half century at least, conducted a lessons-learned exercise to determine why its high-profile engagement diplomacy with rogue regimes—North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, the PLO, the Taliban, or Iran—never seems to work. All too often, it seems history repeats.

It’s worth considering, then, what happened the last time the United States negotiated in earnest with Zarif. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, both Zalmay Khalilzad (at the time a senior National Security Council official) and Ryan Crocker (then a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), traveled to Geneva to meet secretly with Zarif. Their goal was to come to an understanding with Iran ahead of the start of hostilities commencing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: Basically, the U.S. side sought not interference and non-intervention with Iran. Zarif readily agreed that Iran would not interfere with any American pilots who strayed into Iraqi airspace, nor would Iran interfere in Iraq by inserting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iranian-backed militias into the country.

Just days later, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced and almost immediately, more than 2,000 Revolutionary Guardsmen and militiamen infiltrated into Iraq. The Iranian movement was reported first by an Iranian journalist close to former President Mohammad Khatami. In other words, Zarif gave his firm commitment that Iran would not conduct an action, and then Iran subsequently and blatantly violated that agreement.

There are two possible explanations: The first is that Zarif lied. The second is that the then-UN Ambassador was sincere, but he had no power to force groups like the Revolutionary Guards to abide by his negotiated commitments. Either way, the result was the same: Hundreds of Americans died because senior diplomats and the Bush administration chose to trust the Iranians.

The stakes with Iran are even higher today; perhaps it’s time for Kerry to explain in precise detail how it is that a man whose word was without meaning a decade ago has become a trusted intermediary. No one should hold their breath, however, because there is no good answer.

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Obama’s Main Achievement: Iran in Iraq

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

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Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

As the Times notes:

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.

Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.

The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.

Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.

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The Anti-Bibi Offensive Reaches the Point of Diminishing Returns

Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

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Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

After several weeks of feuding over Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol in accepting an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner, the breach between the two governments has now reached the stage where it cannot be dismissed as a mere spat. The administration’s commitment to a policy shift on Iran, in which the effort to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been set aside in favor of a push for détente with the Islamist regime, has created more than just a little daylight between Israel and the United States. But what is curious is the way leading figures in President Obama’s foreign-policy team, whether it be Kerry or National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have chosen to treat Netanyahu as a major threat to its objective rather than just the leader of a small, albeit influential, allied country who is not in a position to do anything to stop Obama from doing as he likes.

The most remarkable thing about the piling on the Israeli this week is the disproportionate nature of the attacks. That this treatment has been ordered from the top—which is to say, the president—isn’t doubted by anyone in the know. But in doing so, the administration is now running the risk of losing the advantage it obtained when it was able to use Netanyahu’s blunder about the speech to divert the national discussion from its indefensible position on Iran. Rather than damaging Netanyahu’s credibility and increasing his isolation (an absurd charge since few took notice of Netanyahu’s testimony on Iraq at the time), this all-out offensive is making him seem a more sympathetic figure that deserves a hearing.

Netanyahu has shown remarkably poor judgment in recent weeks that belied the supposedly deft understanding of Washington and American politics that has been his trademark and that of Ron Dermer, his ambassador to the United States. Accepting Boehner’s invitation without clearing it with the White House allowed Obama to make Netanyahu the issue rather than the administration’s opposition to a sanctions bill that would have strengthened its hands in the Iran talks. The prime minister compounded that mistake by then refusing an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats because he feared that might constitute an admission that he was colluding with the Republicans.

The administration ought to be wary of overplaying its hand on Netanyahu. After all, no matter how much applause he gets or doesn’t get when he gives his speech to Congress next week, none of that can prevent Kerry from cutting a disastrous deal with Iran if the ayatollahs are ready to make one at all. Given the president’s plans not to present any agreement to the Senate for approval as a treaty and the poor chances of an override of a veto of an Iran sanctions bill, he might be better off ignoring Israeli objections rather than jousting with him.

Though Obama has a reputation as a cold-blooded decision maker, he seems to have let his hatred for Netanyahu get the better of him and ordered his minions to launch a general offensive against Israel in order to crush the prime minister even before he opens his mouth in Washington. Why is he bothering?

The answer is that deep underneath the president’s cool exterior and his conviction that he and only he understands what is right for the country is a fear that Netanyahu’s powerful arguments against appeasing Iran will be heard and believed. That gives the Israeli more credit than he may deserve, but it also reflects Obama’s awareness that if openly debated, his string of unprecedented concessions to Iran can’t be easily defended.

After promising in his 2012 reelection campaign that any deal with Iran would ensure that its nuclear program be eliminated, the president is now preparing to not only guarantee its continued possession of a vast nuclear infrastructure but the phased portion of the current proposal on the table would implicitly grant the Islamist regime the ability to build a bomb after a ten-year period. Just as importantly, the U.S. now seems as indifferent to Iran’s support of international terrorism, its anti-Semitism, threats to destroy Israel, and its push for regional hegemony as it is to the prospect of it being a threshold nuclear power.

In pursuit of this agenda with Iran, the president has ruthlessly played the partisan card (while accusing Netanyahu of doing the same), pushing Democrats to abandon what was formerly a true bipartisan consensus against Iran and seeking to undermine the pro-Israel coalition in Congress. But as long as pundits are discussing or bashing Netanyahu, these issues have been marginalized. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing even when it comes to sniping at the Israeli leader.

Kerry’s absurd overreach against Netanyahu while lamely seeking to defend his current concessions to Iran shows that the administration has reached the point of diminishing returns with respect to the Israeli. Whether Netanyahu was wise to plan this speech is now beside the point. The more the administration seeks to shut him up, the more credence his remarks get. Whereas the address might have been just a Washington story had the White House not gone ballistic about it, it will now be treated as a major international event raising the stakes on the Iran debate just at the moment the administration would like to calm things down. The time has come for the administration to back down and let him talk lest the country listen to Netanyahu’s arguments and realize the president is selling them a bill of goods on Iran.

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Williams and the Myth of the Evening News

In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.

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In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.

The clamor about Williams’s astonishing lies about what happened during his time in Iraq is amplified by the notion that he is not just another TV talking head but the face of NBC News. To be the leading personality of a broadcast network’s news division is not a small thing even in an era where there are hundreds of alternatives for viewers choose at 6:30 p.m. EST when the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams airs on weekdays. But though he has built a reputation and a following with a sonorous voice, sense of humor, and a low-key everyman style of reading the news, Williams is not quite the big deal that a person in his position would once have been considered.

For decades, the nation was largely dependent on the 30-minute programs shown by the three major networks for national and international news. Those who read the headlines on these programs—Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and Howard K. Smith, just to mention those with the longest tenure—were not just TV stars. They were the gods of the news business and national icons rather than mere celebrities as some of today’s more prominent news readers might be considered.

But the point here is that Williams’ program and the competition on CBS and ABC ceased being the central focus of the nation’s attention or of the chattering classes a long time ago. And the reason for that is not entirely unrelated to the controversy about the NBC personality.

Williams was forced this week to make an on-air apology for repeatedly falsifying the story of his Iraq experience. Though at the time of the incident, he broadcast a report that said he was in a helicopter following an aircraft that was hit by enemy fire, in the years since then he has embellished the story to the extent that now the rocket-propelled grenade hit his copter. Shakespeare’s Henry V pointed out in his “St. Crispin’s Day” speech that old soldiers have sometimes been known to speak of their exploits “with advantages” as the years pass and when wine is flowing. But Williams is a journalist who is supposed to stick to the facts and avoid fiction. That Williams once publicly berated bloggers as being unreliable when compared to media veterans like him only makes him more vulnerable.

What’s more, as the New York Times pointed out today, he may have dug himself an even deeper hole by putting his false statements down to “the fog of war,” a very real concept that has nothing to do with what happened to Williams. Indeed that “fog” may be even greater than we might think since some are accusing him of making up the part about his helicopter following the one that was hit.

This is all very embarrassing for NBC and a star that it pays more than $10 million a year to look at the camera and sound credible. But if NBC News and CBS and ABC too have audiences that are a fraction of what they once were, it is in no small measure due to the fact that many Americans long ago gave up believing in the network’s integrity.

The point about Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley’s hold on the American imagination is not just that they looked and sounded the part of the nation’s town crier and conscience. It was that they were thought to be objective and fair in their reporting. This was always something of a myth, but the belief in the mainstream media’s conceit about its own objectivity is one that many liberals still cling to. But the huge audience that tunes in to Fox News every day is testament to the fact that many of us long since recognized that the three networks were feeding us news reported and told from a liberal frame of reference. The news icons weren’t just outdated. They were revealed to have feet of clay.

Fox isn’t perfect but it provides a look at the news from a different perspective than that of the leftist elites. That’s also why its left-wing competition at MSNBC is such a disaster. The fact that MSNBC’s ratings are now at a 10-year low is not surprising. Liberals like to watch news with a liberal bias. But MSNBC’s open bias (which is far greater than that of Fox’s tilt to the right) isn’t what they want. They prefer their liberal bias presented with a false veneer of objectivity rather than the overt leftism of the failing network.

Whether Williams can survive the furor over his lies is an open question. But his network and the rest of the mainstream media were exposed before we learned about his fibs. Like Dan Rather’s infamous false reports about George W. Bush’s National Guard service, Williams’s tall tale is just one more example of why the pretense of Olympian objectivity of the evening news readers was always bunk. The myth of the evening news was exploded a long time ago. Set beside that truth, the fate of one TV personality is very small change indeed.

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Babylon Deserves UNESCO Protection

Few countries have suffered like Iraq. In the last quarter-century, it has endured three wars, devastating sanctions, and insurgency. Torture and terrorism have been commonplace. Two generations have been scarred if not lost by war and isolation. But despite countless premature eulogies, Iraq and Iraqis of all stripes have been far more resilient than the outside world has predicted or given them credit for.

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Few countries have suffered like Iraq. In the last quarter-century, it has endured three wars, devastating sanctions, and insurgency. Torture and terrorism have been commonplace. Two generations have been scarred if not lost by war and isolation. But despite countless premature eulogies, Iraq and Iraqis of all stripes have been far more resilient than the outside world has predicted or given them credit for.

Saddam Hussein was an egomaniac. Beyond all the palaces, statues, portraits, monuments shaped from molds of his forearms and a Koran written in his blood, Saddam saw himself as the inheritor of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s mantle. Hence, he sought to reconstruct Babylon in his image. From the New York Times in 1989:

For the last three years, over a thousand laborers imported from the Sudan (Iraqi men were away fighting Iran) have worked seven days a week through wet winters and scorching summers to rebuild what archeologists call King Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace – a vast complex of some 500 rooms and the reputed site of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Walls of yellow brick, 40 feet high and topped with pointed crenellations, have replaced the mounds that once marked the Palace foundations. And as Babylon’s walls rise again, the builders insert inscribed bricks recording how Nebuchadnezzar’s palace was ”rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” ”We must finish by September,” said Rabia Mahmmood al-Qaysi, Director of Restoration, in his office here. ”It’s the President’s order.” Outside, an immense painting depicts President Hussein standing before the rebuilt towers of Babylon.

The finished product was more kitsch than archaeologically authentic. From the New York Times in 2003:

The Iraqi leader found the squat, khaki-colored nubs of earth and scattered stacks of bricks left over from one of history’s glorious empires somehow lacking, far too mundane to represent the 2,500-year sweep of Mesopotamian history that was to be reborn through his rule. So he ordered one of the three original palaces rebuilt. Never mind that nobody really knows what the imposing palaces looked like. Nor did Mr. Hussein pay much heed to the fact that the archaeological world cried foul — deriding his project as Disney for a Despot — because he was violating their sacred principle of preserving rather than recreating. But as with many moves by Mr. Hussein, the end result garnered great populist appeal and hence he will probably have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins.

What the New York Times got wrong, however, is that it was not Saddam who will have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins, but rather the bureaucrats of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known simply by the acronym UNESCO. When UNESCO isn’t straying from its mission to dabble in politics and polemics, it maintains a list of world heritage sites whose protection it aids.

Iraq has just four UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites: Hatra, Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), Samarra Archaeological City, and the Erbil Citadel in Kurdistan. That puts it alongside such countries as Belarus, the Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, and Kazakhstan, far from the prominence of its true cultural cousins. Such famous archaeological sites as Ur, Nineveh, and Babylon itself are missing from the UNESCO ranks. That could soon change if Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi’s government and the governorate administration in nearby Hilla have their say. From the Iraq Daily Journal:

Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities on Monday said that his country is seeking to restore the ancient ruin city of Babylon onto the UNESCO world heritage list. “We have finished our part and prepared a dossier to be sent to the UNESCO tomorrow, and so we met our obligation to prepare this dossier on February 1,” Adel Shirshab told a press conference in Baghdad. Earlier, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi government and the government of Babil province, in which the Iraqi side has to prepare a dossier by some Iraqi archeologists and tourism experts to assess the damages and situation of the site…

The site is the remains of a Mesopotamian capital that flourished for centuries, it was home to Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) who introduced the world’s first known set of laws, and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.) who built the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Under the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the city was terribly damages when he decided to rebuild Babylon with modern bricks inscribed with his name, right atop the original walls. Then the 4,000-year-old city became military “Camp Alpha” soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. UNESCO earlier said that the U.S. troops and contractors inflicted considerable damage on the historic Iraqi site of Babylon, driving heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through one of the world’ most important archaeological sites.

UNESCO’s complaints with regard to the American (well, actually, Polish) military presence were guided more by knee-jerk opposition to the Iraq war rather than real damage to the site. The U.S. military wasn’t without mistakes, but it had consulted archaeologists and was quite careful. (I had toured Babylon in 2003 while still within the boundaries of the Polish military’s contingent alongside an Iraqi archaeologist). Having the ruins within the confines of a military camp may actually have protected it, by preventing looters and scavengers from picking over its artifacts.

Regardless, When it comes to Iraq, if there’s one thing most of the world can agree upon (well, with the exception perhaps of sectarian states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), it is that policies which bring Iraqis together rather than tear them apart are long overdue. Likewise, almost every senior Iraqi official and foreign diplomat will acknowledge the need for Iraq to diversify its economy, a need made more acute by the drop in the price of oil.

The Iraqi government’s application to list Babylon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is wise. It helps bolster Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector, an industry that will be crucial in the future if and when Iraq stabilizes.

UNESCO, however, seems ambivalent. Perhaps the reason is political, or perhaps it is sincere concern over previous damage to the site. But, Saddam’s megalomania is hardly the fault of Iraqis; they were its chief victims. Regardless, while archaeologists might lament what Saddam did to portions of the site, large sections remain untouched. For UNESCO to refuse to extend its support and protection because of Saddam’s ill taste would effectively continue the destruction which Saddam began.

There is a further irony here as well. Prior to the “Shock-and-Awe” campaign which marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was some discussion about targeting statues of Saddam and key Baathist monuments. U.S. forces had the precision to conduct such operations, and destroying such Saddam kitsch would signal that Coalition action was against Saddam rather than the Iraqi people. However, U.S. government lawyers said that such a strategy would be illegal since those statues and monuments were Iraq’s cultural heritage. How sad it would be if Saddam’s cultural heritage became the reason to allow Iraq’s real cultural heritage to erode further.

If the international community is serious about allowing Iraq to pick up the pieces, and if UNESCO is sincere in its mission to protect endangered archaeological sites and country’s cultural heritage, then it should both fast-track and work with the Iraqi government to get Babylon the UNESCO designation it needs and deserves.

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American Sniper and the Truth About Iraq

Having seen American Sniper last night, I came away stunned by the controversy over the film. As The Washington Post summarizes, a billboard for the film in West Hollywood was spray-painted with the word “murderer,” Michael Moore has claimed that snipers are “cowards” not “heroes,” Seth Rogen has likened it to a Nazi propaganda film show in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and some have even compared Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle to the very jihadist terrorists that he fought.

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Having seen American Sniper last night, I came away stunned by the controversy over the film. As The Washington Post summarizes, a billboard for the film in West Hollywood was spray-painted with the word “murderer,” Michael Moore has claimed that snipers are “cowards” not “heroes,” Seth Rogen has likened it to a Nazi propaganda film show in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and some have even compared Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle to the very jihadist terrorists that he fought.

Listening to the criticism you would think that American Sniper was a mindless, pro-Iraq War movie. That’s not the movie I saw. Almost entirely apolitical, American Sniper had nothing to say one way or the other about whether the Iraq War was worth fighting and even showed Chris Kyle’s younger brother cursing the war at the end of his deployment as a marine. It is true that the main narrative of the film depicts Kyle’s martial skills in uncritical fashion–he was the most deadly sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills–but it also makes much of the emotional cost of four combat deployments for both him and especially for his family. Among other things, the movie is a sensitive and understated depiction of post-traumatic stress syndrome, showing how much trouble Kyle had in adjusting back into the civilian world after leaving Iraq.

Why, then, all the criticism? Perhaps because almost all of the Iraqis are depicted as bad guys–or to use the word that Kyle used “savages–while Kyle and his SEAL teammates are depicted as dedicated professionals who try as hard as possible to avoid killing civilians. Although the movie shows a scene at the beginning of Kyle killing a woman and her child who are carrying a grenade to blow up a Marine column (in reality he only killed the woman–there was no child present), it later shows how relieved he is that a child who picked up a rocket-propelled grenade and aimed it an American Humvee put down the weapon and ran away before Kyle could shoot him. This is, in short, not a movie like  Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July or In the Valley of Elah or MASH that depicts American soldiers in the worst possible light.

But guess what? In my experience having visited Iraq a number of times during the war, Clint Eastwood, the movie’s director, is telling it like it is. Oh sure, large elements of the film are fictionalized (no, Kyle did not have a personal duel with a Syrian sniper called Mustafa), as is the case with pretty much every Hollywood movie. But the movie gets the larger truth right–that, with some lamentable and inevitable exceptions, American soldiers did behave themselves in exemplary fashion in Iraq, certainly compared to their enemies who drove car bombs into crowds of civilians and ruthless tortured to death anyone they suspected of opposing them.

The movie gets it, right, too that for many combat became an addictive high that was hard to let go of, and that, while many veterans bear psychological scars from their service, few have any regrets about their service. Many would no doubt nod in recognition along with Chris Kyle when he says that his only regret was that he couldn’t save more American soldiers–by, presumably, killing more of their enemies. Now many veterans would add another regret to their list–that President Obama pulled out all American troops from Iraq in 2011, allowing the extremists to retake towns from Fallujah to Mosul that Americans had fought so hard to clear. But I haven’t heard any veterans say their service was a mistake and that they were victims of a malign and deceitful American government–which is presumably what the MoveOn.org crowd is waiting to hear.

American Sniper could and should have done more to depict the brave Iraqis who fought alongside Americans against Shiite and Sunni extremists. (No Iraqi soldiers are shown, only interpreters who may or may not have been Iraqis.) It at least does have one scene which shows the extent to which Iraqis themselves were victimized by these fanatics–a harrowing depiction of an enforcer called “The Butcher” killing a boy with a power drill. What the movie’s critics may not like, but which is nevertheless true, is that this is an accurate depiction of the enemy that American troops were (and are) fighting–merciless fanatics who have staged the worst terrorist killing spree in history. And unfortunately that spree continues because ISIS, the group that has taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, is a direct descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that Kyle and his fellow SEALs fought in the movie.

No doubt some would love to see American Sniper show moral equivalence between SEALs and their jihadist enemies in the manner of Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion, which depicted the commonality between French and German soldiers in World War I. That might make the movie more complex and more artistic, but it would also make it fundamentally false. Sorry, there simply isn’t any moral equivalence in the ongoing battle against jihadism—any more than there is any moral equivalence between American soldiers in World War II and their Nazi enemies.

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The Right’s Unwise Eisenhower Nostalgia

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

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There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

To be sure, there is much to admire in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t add any clarity to conservative policy planning to admire things about Eisenhower that didn’t actually exist. This week two of the right’s foreign-policy minds, Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim, wrote a piece for National Review Online sketching out what they say is a reform-conservative foreign policy with a GOP candidate “who will play Eisenhower” as its avatar. As sensible as many of their principles are, the article contains neither much reform nor an accurate portrayal of Ike.

They pitch the coming GOP foreign-policy debate as a modern-day battle between Eisenhower and Taft. They cast Rand Paul as the champion of the Taftites, but I don’t think they’re being quite fair to Paul when they say those on his side of the debate “see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests.” His father, Ron Paul, probably believes this. Rand believes in strategic retrenchment that, I think, underestimates the repercussions of such retrenchment but which does not replicate the noxious rhetoric of his father’s acolytes.

So what would a reform-conservative foreign-policy doctrine look like? Here’s their description:

It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

This sounds almost exactly like … the reigning conservative foreign-policy consensus. I’m not sure what about that description is “reform”–which is fine with me, because those are sound principles. They just happen to be sound principles that have been guiding most conservative foreign-policy thinkers. It’s such a general description, in fact, that I could imagine it appearing on any GOP 2016 candidate’s issues page.

But the authors see this as a back-to-our-roots conservative reform. They write: “President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above.”

He most certainly did not.

The obvious hole in this plot is the second in their list of principles: “It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” If this sounds like Ike to you, we’re having a very strange foreign-policy debate.

Two of the most famous foreign-policy incidents on Ike’s watch were the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Eisenhower fumbled the attempt to keep American partnership in the Aswan Dam and influence on the Suez Canal, which Egypt then nationalized. And he forcefully opposed the allies’ attempts to break Nasser’s hold.

In his recent book on postwar American foreign policy, Stephen Sestanovich writes: “Suez was no mere transatlantic disagreement, but a strategic defeat from which Britain and France never recovered. This was, in a sense, Eisenhower’s goal. He and Dulles now went beyond merely wanting American allies to fail. The United States actively and decisively promoted their failure.” Ike’s public stand against Britain, France, and Israel later in the crisis “combined outrage with undisguised pleasure at the chance to join world opinion against old-fashioned imperialism.”

Ike’s decision not to intervene in the Kremlin’s quashing of the Hungarian uprising certainly has many defenders, but I doubt it qualifies as making “clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” Ike’s foreign policy was muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow. Eisenhower’s caution was followed by the next Republican president, Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans had a foreign policy consistent with the principles Dueck and Zakheim lay out.

Of course, the Iraq War is the elephant in the room, and Dueck and Zakheim choose to acknowledge it this way:

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq.

That seems really to be what this is about: the foreign-policy factory worker’s ritual denunciation of Bush. I don’t have a ton of patience for this. I wasn’t part of this supposed evil cabal of warmongers that led us into Iraq either. I was a sophomore in college when the 9/11 attacks enduringly changed our foreign-policy debate. But I don’t feel the need to claim clean hands every time I expound on foreign affairs.

Conservatives who believe that the principles that guided much of Bush’s foreign policy are perfectly acceptable unless they’re held by people who actually served in Bush’s inner circle are engaging in school-cafeteria politics. And transferring Bush’s principles to Eisenhower in order to launder political capital is not constructive. Ike was a hero, and he deserves to be remembered as one. But as president, his foreign policy was eventually left behind for a reason.

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George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

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In his column today, George Will writes this:

The last eleven years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America ”goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

On Iraq, he’s simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won. (For the record, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War was around 58,000; in the Iraq War, it was around 4,500.) As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

But as Krauthammer argues, President Obama blew it by failing to secure the SOFA; and in blowing it, Mr. Obama lost the war. That failure is not attributable to what happened in 2003; it’s attributable to what happened in 2011.

I do want to add a few more thoughts on George Will and the Iraq war. Prior to it, there was no more articulate advocate for the war. In an October 8, 2002 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities. . . .

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

Mr. Will is a marvelous writer who helped shape my own political and philosophical views. I admire him, and it’s certainly fine for people to change their mind. But I do believe that now that he’s claiming Iraq is “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history,” Will might want to admit from time to time that he believed, pre-Iraq war, it was a terrific and necessary idea.

Beyond that, it might be helpful, and it would certainly be interesting, for Mr. Will to explain his own fairly dramatic evolution on national security and foreign policy. He’s in a very different place philosophically than he was during the 1970s through the mid-2000s. (Let’s just say he was not then a member of the “John Quincy Adams faction” of the GOP.) Let me suggest, in a genuinely respectful way, that given his influential place in conservatism, Will owes us an explanation for these changes–and an explanation for why he now believes he got so much wrong then and why he’s so right now.

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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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Israel’s Record on Civilian Casualties Compares Well to America’s

Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

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Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, of the victims of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq whose age and gender could be determined, 46 percent were women and 39 percent were children. The study, based on data from Iraq Body Count, covered the period from March 2003 to March 2008, but specifically excluded airstrikes carried out during periods of intense fighting, such as the initial U.S. invasion and the 2004 battle of Fallujah. In other words, it excluded those periods when fire was likely to be heaviest and most indiscriminate due to the need to protect troops at risk.

By contrast, according to statistics published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 12 percent of all Palestinians killed in Gaza were women and 23 percent were children (239 women and 459 children out of 1,976 fatalities). Thus even if OCHA’s numbers are accurate, the percentages of women and children killed in Gaza were far lower than the percentages killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. Yet one would expect them to be higher, for at least three reasons.

First, unlike the NEJM study, OCHA’s figures cover the entire war, including periods of intense fighting when soldiers’ lives were at risk. In other words, they include the battles involving the heaviest fire, which NEJM’s study excluded. Second, the NEJM figures referred only to airstrikes, which utilize precision weapons; OCHA’s figures also include people killed by non-precision weaponry such as artillery fire. Third, though the claim that Gaza is one of the world’s mostly densely populated places is nonsense, almost all the fighting took place in dense urban areas: Since Hamas’s strategy depends on massive civilian casualties, it locates its rocket launchers and tunnels mainly in such areas. In contrast, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq weren’t limited to dense urban areas.

In short, even if OCHA’s figures are credible, Israel comes off well by comparison with coalition forces in Iraq. But in fact, they aren’t. First, OCHA doesn’t say whether any of these “children” were combatants, though it’s hardly unheard of for 16- or 17-year-old Palestinians to bear arms. More importantly, however, it doesn’t say how many of these women and children were actually killed by Hamas rather than Israel.

As I’ve noted before, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched at Israel–475 out of 3,137–actually landed in Gaza, where, given the lack of either Iron Dome or civilian bomb shelters, they would have been far more lethal than they were in Israel. In one documented case alone, a misfired Hamas rocket killed 10 people in a park, including eight children.

Moreover, as I’ve also noted, Hamas’s practice of booby-trapping and storing rockets in houses, mosques, and clinics means that many Israeli strikes inadvertently set off massive secondary explosions. In other words, many Palestinian “victims of Israeli attacks” were likely killed not by the Israeli strike itself, but by secondary explosions caused by Hamas’s own bombs.

Americans rightly expect the world to understand that when U.S. airstrikes decimate a Yemeni wedding party or kill civilians in Iraq, it isn’t because the U.S. is bloodthirsty, but because mistakes happen in wartime, especially when fighting terrorists who don’t wear uniforms and operate from amid civilian populations. But Israel is entitled to that same understanding.

Instead, the White House, Pentagon, and State Department have all accused Israel in the harshest terms of doing too little to prevent civilian casualties. Given that Israel’s record on this score, as the NEJM study shows, is even better than America’s, that is the height of hypocrisy.

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Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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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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