Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Blame Game

Published in National Review Online on December 1, 2006



In several posts over at Talking Points Memo (herehere, and here)  Josh Marshall claims that I’m trying to blame the American people, rather than President Bush, for our troubles in Iraq.  Not at all.  I certainly believe that the administration is responsible for some real mistakes in Iraq.  Specifically, I think the administration seriously overestimated the ease with which we can export democracy, and seriously underestimated the troop strength that would be required to make democratization succeed.  See, for example, my piece, “Troop Dearth,” from the beginning of the Iraq war.  (See also, “After the War,” and “Democratic Imperialism,” for cautions on democratization.)My theme in “Troop Dearth” was that trouble was coming from the administration’s excessive optimism, but also from constraints placed on the administration by the anti-war left.  From Marshall’s posts, you’d think that all Democrats were Iraq hawks–comfortable with the idea of the Iraq war itself, so long as the war involved more troops, or only against the war because of prudent calculations about troop requirements.  In fact, a huge chunk of the Democratic Party was against the Iraq war from the start, and would have opposed it even if–no, especially if–they thought that war could be won.  The doves hugely exaggerated even minor problems, such as those we faced in the first week or two of the shooting war.  And as I noted in “Troop Dearth,” the polarization of debate during even the early and more successful phases of the war made it tough for the administration to admit errors on troop strength and correct course.  But that doesn’t mean I hold the administration blameless.  Far from it.By posing this question as a matter of either “blaming the American people” or blaming “Bush’s lies,” Marshall is being simplistic.  To be sure, I think the administration has been wrong to cling so tenaciously to the philosophy of military “transformation,” allowing the constraints of transformation to shape fundamental strategy for the Iraq war.  And by the way, even those “neocons” with whom I may disagree about democratization strategies have been rightly critical of the administration on the issue of transformation and troop strength for a long time.  In any case, the president and Secretary Rumsfeld were on the transformation bandwagon since well before 9/11.  They sincerely believed in the philosophy of transformation (which does have merits, if not taken too far), just as they sincerely believed intelligence reports about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.  So while the administration deserves blame, it’s not for “lies.”In any event, the administration hasn’t been operating in a political vacuum.  The dovish inclination of the Democratic base has acted as a major constraint on our policy in Iraq.  We are a world away from the old days of “politics stops at the water’s edge,” and that huge political fact can’t help but have a major influence on policy.  In fact, one of the attractions of the “transformation” philosophy is the dream of being able to prosecute wars without having to field large numbers of troops or take large numbers of casualties.  In effect, the administration’s philosophy of military transformation is built around the (excessively wishful) calculation that the public’s aversion to conflict and casualties can be accommodated via technology.

I’ve never found Josh Marshall’s larger “Bush lied,” theory convincing.  (See, for example, my “Dems’ Dilemma.”)  But I do believe that the administration has been afraid to publicly float the idea of expanding the military.  That’s because the administration understands very well that the doves like Rangel would demagogue even a request for more volunteers to raise fears of a draft.  In reaction to the doves’ thirst to raise the specter of a draft, and their more general opposition to war, I think the administration honestly convinced itself that transformation and the “light footprint” would solve our problems.  Or rather, the administration’s already transformationist inclinations were solidified by the anti-war impulses of the post-Vietnam Dems.

In other words, America’s growing contingent of post-60’s doves and the hope of military transformation are two sides of the same coin.  The post-Vietnam rise of reflexive opposition to American military involvement has given birth to the dream of military transformation: war conducted by technology, with a “light footprint” from soldiers.  So I “blame” both the administration’s over-hopefulness, and the very real domestic political constraints that make almost any American military venture difficult to undertake.  These domestic political constraints are not simply based upon prudential judgements by thoughtful liberals.  To a significant extent, they are grounded in a reflexive aversion to the use of force, and to a mistaken assessment of the threats this country faces in a post-9/11 world.  So, yes, I blame the doves.  But I certainly blame an administration captive to bad judgements and wishful thinking on rapid democratization and troop strength as well.

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