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Thursday, May 10, 2007 | The Bush Administration sought to go to war with Iraq from its earliest days. We knew that from former insiders Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill, and now George Tenet has confirmed it. Bush told lies about alleged Iraqi links to Sept. 11 to sell his intended war to the American people.
Like so many war-makers before him, Bush believed his war would be easily won. Pet phrases from advisers like “slam dunk,” “welcomed as liberators” and “greeted with flowers and candy” fed his vanity. Winning at war — defined as improving the status quo ante — is the main reason for waging war. Who starts a war thinking he will lose?
Yet if we look at recent wars, including Bush’s war, we see a record of such monumental failure as to wonder why any rational leader would choose such a path. Clausewitz’s classic definition of war as “policy by other means” makes it a last resort. For Bush, war was a first resort: the U.N. debate, weapons inspections, negotiations and deadlines were smokescreens.
Israel’s devastating report last week about its war in Lebanon last summer provides more evidence on failed warmongering. An independent commission accused government leaders of launching war hastily, without a plan, without consultation and with “over-ambitious and unobtainable” goals.
They might have been describing Bush’s war.
Like Israelis, Americans will have an investigation of Bush’s war, just as we had on the Vietnam War. Congressional hearings, however, reflect partisan politics. Israel’s commission was independent and non-partisan. Its job was to look at the national interest, not partisan political interests.
The Iraq war confirms the proposition that “victory has many fathers; defeat is an orphan.” The architects of Bush’s war are trampling each other to get out of the building. Tenet and Paul Wolfowitz, who both bear major war responsibility and guilt, made messy escapes only to find the war following them. Wolfowitz’s fall at the World Bank derives from the belief that Washington should not be allowed again to use the prestigious bank as penance for war crimes. Once (Robert McNamara) was enough.
Like Colin Powell before him, Tenet seeks to wash his hands of Iraq, accusing Bush of blaming the CIA for war failure and making him a scapegoat. It won’t wash. Like Powell, Tenet had the moment when he might have served his country by speaking out. History will judge him, like Powell, by deeds, not words.
Whatever the conclusions of Israel’s war commission, Israel had a greater casus belli against Lebanon — from which militants were launching raids and rocket attacks — than Bush had against Iraq, which posed no threat to America. Still, the commission concluded that neither the government nor the military was ready for war and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bears “supreme and comprehensive responsibility” for the failure.
The same can be said of Bush, though any judgment must condemn Dick Cheney equally. If Bush is the czar, Cheney is Rasputin.
How did these failures happen? Israeli military superiority in Lebanon was as great as U.S. superiority in Iraq. Yet both nations failed totally in their war goals.
It’s not surprising. History shows that modern offensive war failures far outnumber successes, and that successes have qualities that distinguish them both from Israel in Lebanon and America in Iraq. Knowing the qualities of success at war makes knowledge of history important.
Prior to Bush’s war, the most important war failures of the past half-century were Arabs in Israel, America in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, Iraq in Iran and Kuwait and Serbia in Bosnia and Kosovo. In each case, the aggressor went to war to improve the status quo ante only to find at war’s end it was worse off than at the outset.
In invading Iraq, Bush repeated Johnson’s mistake in Vietnam and Brezhnev’s in Afghanistan — believing that backward Asian nations were no match for a superpower. Each invasion was successful, and each occupation a failure, reminding of Talleyrand’s reflection on Napoleon’s march to Moscow that “you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them.”
Going back to World War II, we find a similar pattern. The German and Japanese aggressors went to war to improve the status quo ante — both seeking Lebensraum, to use the German word — and the failures were so great and the penalties so harsh that both nations were disarmed by defeat.
From the German and Japanese aggressions of World War II, the U.N. Charter was written outlawing war except in two cases: When the Security Council votes for war because of a threat to the international order; and when war is defensive.
Bush’s war met neither test. He shunned the U.N. when it was clear the Security Council opposed the war; the war was offensive despite Bush’s futile attempts to persuade the world that “pre-emptive” war was in fact defensive. The chicanery over “pre-emptive” war led to the pitiful Powell-Tenet slide show at the Security Council that was the downfall of both men.
So when does war work?
It works exactly as the U.N. Charter says:
When the Security Council votes it and a broad coalition of states undertakes it, as in the 1991 gulf war against Iraq.
When it is defensive and the aggressed nation either wears down the aggressor — as in Israel, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq — or attracts enough international attention and assistance to hold out and eventually turn back the aggressor, as Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait each did in the 1990s.
Bush’s thirst for glory combined with ignorance of history put America in an un-winnable situation in Iraq and destroyed his presidency.
“Ambition for which one doesn’t have the talent,” wrote Chateaubriand, “is a crime.”
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.