The decision of US president George W Bush and his administration to invade Iraq on March 19, 2003 and conduct a "shock and awe" campaign of blitzkrieg and nation-building has been intensely debated ever since it was made. The motives and delusions of Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, and their neoconservative colleagues have been parsed and anatomised in more than a decade's worth of intensely concerned non-fiction works, including a trio of books by Bob Woodward, and 2006's Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn.
That "hubris" is echoed in the title of Michael J Mazarr's new book Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Foreign Policy Tragedy, the latest attempt to make some sense out of the Iraq War. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, and he is therefore the latest think-tank expert to ask: How could this have happened? How could the smart, experienced men and women of the Bush administration have made so protracted a series of obvious blunders?
The deeper issues
Mazarr makes clear early in his book that "stubborn and erroneous mythologies" have clung to the subject right from the beginning; "that the war was produced by a conspiracy of neoconservatives", for instance, or "that it was waged for oil or Israel or Halliburton, [or] that George Bush was a puppet in the hands of Dick Cheney". Mazarr sees these as distractions from the deeper problems that prompted the whole fiasco (Fiasco being the title of yet another Iraq War book, by Thomas Ricks in 2006).
Even after 16 years, the signal events of that fiasco still retain the power to outrage. Many of Mazarr's readers will remember with acidic clarity vice president Cheney's claim that American troops would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi civilians whose homes they were bulldozing. They'll likewise remember secretary of state Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations on February 5, 2003, in which he laid out the administration's justifications for going to war.
“When the speech was delivered, chock-full of bad intelligence and hyperboles, many informed observers, watching in Washington and around the world, were horrified,” Mazarr writes. “US intelligence officials, observing the secretary of state power through his assertions, were aghast that the speech included claims known to be false and references to human sources that had long been discredited.”
Mazarr describes the US efforts to deprive Saddam Hussein of his alleged weapons of mass destruction as "rushed, confused and ad hoc"; he generally characterises the administration's entire approach to the war as "unaccountably ham-handed and shoddy." He points out that it should have come as no surprise to the Bush administration that "the initial welcome in Iraq was destined to congeal into something far more ferocious and grim". ("Do I welcome the Americans?" he quotes an Iraqi man as saying. "No. I am a soldier. If someone attacked America, what would you do?").
A leap of faith
What Mazarr refers to as a "fundamental dilemma" lurked in the very DNA of the whole enterprise: why was America leading a coalition to invade Iraq? To oust Saddam Hussein from power and install an Iraqi government in his place, or to commence an open-ended military occupation of the country? If you break the country, you produce chaos; if you rule it, you strengthen the very forces of resistance you meant to quash.
In other words, the perfect recipe for a protracted quagmire that was both unwinnable and immensely easy to predict. Indeed, many voices back in 2003 did predict it, and if Mazarr's careful, intelligent book has one besetting flaw, it's a tendency to downplay the obvious implications of that predictability.
As Mazarr points out, president Bush had some extremely able and experienced advisers. Mazarr knows he cannot call them stupid, but he'd clearly rather say they were blinded by a "messianic" impulsive sense of righteousness than that they were malevolent opportunists. The result may be a balanced account, but that very quality will infuriate many of the people who were infuriated back in 2003. Those readers will say Bush and company don't deserve balance.
It’s fairly organic for Mazarr to move from asking, “How could this have happened?” to asking, essentially, could this happen again? If the Bush administration could bungle its way into a disastrous decade-long war despite every possible indication against, couldn’t some new administration, fuelled by a comparable combination of zealotry and incompetence, do the same thing in, say, Venezuela or Cuba?
Mazarr says our safeguard will be a careful, prudent government administration and a thoughtful, informed populace. Leap of faith indeed.