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Category: US in Iraq.archive
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
The purpose of Memorial Day is to take a collective, national pause to consider and celebrate those brave dead who gave their “last full measure of devotion…so that this nation [might] not perish from the earth.”

In that vein, Victor Davis Hanson’s Memorial Day analytical tribute, “Looking Back to Iraq: A War to be Proud of,” is a must read.

What went right?

Hanson asserts:
1. Saddam is gone and that is good. A malevolent actor is no longer atop one of the most potentially powerful states in the world, roiling an already turbulent and troublesome region, held in check only through a leaky sanctions regime, which was dependent upon European resolve, Russian morality and Chinese altruism.

2. US action gave Iraq an honest opportunity for democracy.

3. The fight with Islamism in Iraq has shed moral clarity on the vital war with Islamic extremism.

Manifest reasons why we didn’t go to war (Hanson enumerates):
1. Cheap gasoline.
2. Halliburton.
3. Imperialism (some of the President’s strongest critics call for more troops—not less, and it is clear that no one in the USA wants us to stay in Iraq one minute more than necessary).

Hanson touches on the debate over casus belli. He does well to remind us that the pre-war case for action was not mono-causal—but laced with multiple motives. One of my colleagues wrote critically, before the fighting commenced, that President Bush seemed unable to articulate one clear reason for war; he bemoaned the Bush approach of multiple rationales, seeing such variety as a signal that the case was not well made.

However, I believed then and now that criticism of that nature was misplaced. I have criticized the President for the exact opposite mistake: President Bush relied too heavily on WMD as a casus belli. There were myriad imperatives why Saddam’s removal was crucial: the shaky sanctions regime; the fact that we were flying combat missions (and taking hostile fire) over Iraq every day; our presence in Saudi Arabia, a result of the ongoing “state of war” with Iraq, was highly offensive to the Muslim world; and, most importantly, the Middle East is a bad neighborhood with a lot of bad guys and the presence of Saddam exacerbated that precarious balance between threatening and less-threatening entities. Every day Saddam was in power made the United States and the world less safe. Transforming Iraq would be a watershed moment in remaking the Middle East.

Notwithstanding, President Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell pinned the case for war on WMD. Why did they do it? It was a sure thing. In the words of George Tenant, it was a “slam dunk.” We know now that the slam dunk was the sure thing that wasn’t.

Almost immediately, even before the full realization that there would be no smoking WMD, the Bush administration began to emphasize the other reasons for toppling Saddam and building a democratic government in Iraq friendly to the United States, which continues to bring criticism from various quarters.

Fluid rationales for wars are not unprecedented in American history. Oftentimes Presidents have had trouble articulating our real reasons for making war. James K. Polk’s War Message to Congress asking for a declaration of hostilities against Mexico is perhaps the most infamous. President Polk charged the Mexicans with rudeness to an American diplomat, primarily, and, as an after thought, an unprovoked attack on American forces (after Polk had moved General Zachary Taylor and company into a position finally so provocative that it engendered an attack).

What Polk could not bring himself to say was this: the United States needed the Great Southwest for our experiment in liberty. Polk was clearly under the spell of “Manifest Destiny” (although you will not find that term in the Message or any of his public utterances; the familiar terms comes from a contemporary Democratic newspaper editor).

Sometimes the unvarnished truth is impossible to articulate. Polk knew what Washington, Jefferson and Jackson had known from the very beginning of the American Republic: to reach our full potential as an emerging nation dedicated to a system of self government, we needed a transcontinental “empire for liberty” fueled by a robust economy and westward-moving culture.

Even now the “manifest” truth of that need is hard to articulate, defend and rationalize, but in our hearts we all seem to understand that the Southwest was necessary to our survival and success. Would any of us give it back? We are limited by language and idealism. Our need for pure motives is one of the conundrums of politics in the United States, wherein vital national interests must be tempered with just war doctrine and an acutely American sense of fair play.

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A few weeks ago Arthur Schlesinger attempted to frame the War in Iraq and the actions of President Bush in an historical perspective. In addition to unfavorable comparisons to four modern presidents, Professor Schlesinger cited Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s 1848 opposition to James K. Polk’s War with Mexico to inveigh against the evils of "preventative war" and the Bush doctrine of preemption.

The day before, Thomas Bray, attempting to associate Bush with Lincoln in a positive formulation, told the story of the Civil War president, who made miscalculations based on faulty prewar intelligence, faced down unstinting criticism of his cantankerous secretary of war, curtailed civil liberties and outlasted “embittered Democrats, [who claimed that] the war had been an utter failure [and] demanded that the administration bring the troops home.”

Most American wars have compelling parallels, for they all exist within the the same basic political framework. The title of Bray’s essay, “President Lincoln Lied Us into War Too,” is instructive. Presidents carry the burden, in our democratic-republic, of making the case for war ("selling the war") and convincing Congress and the American people that war is in our vital national interest and the only rational alternative.

For this reason, American presidents have tended to manipulate and exaggerate the threats posed by our intended enemies and taken great latitude in outlining the casus belli when they call us to war. This is true of Polk prior to the Mexican-American War, both Wilson and Roosevelt during the extended preludes to American entry into the two World Wars, and Bush 41 in the run-up to the first Gulf War (to cite a few examples).

And it gets worse. Once committed, the president also has an especially onerous but critical burden during a time of hostilities: maintaining popular support for “his” war. One obvious key: keeping the struggle brief and securing overwhelming and indisputable victory. Win big and win fast.

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