Iraq War Debate: Surge Success, Intelligence Mistakes, Civilian Casualties

Published March 16, 2010

Politics Daily

My column on the Iraq war didn't sit well with my Politics Daily colleague David Corn. Those who have followed Corn's work over the years won't find that particularly surprising. But let's try to untangle his latest arguments.

In his column responding to mine, in an effort to counteract my “triumphalism,” Corn writes: “But, of course, the ultimate outcome of the Iraq war — whatever the results of the latest election — remains unknown.” That is correct — and it's why in my piece I wrote:

Whether [the progress we've seen] lasts is impossible to know; it will be up to the Iraqis themselves to take this opportunity to make something durable out of what has been accomplished so far.

It is also why I wrote earlier this month, “The successes there remain fragile and can still be undone. Iraq has proven to be treacherous terrain for foreign powers.” I added that in Iraq “nothing is guaranteed; 'Everything in Iraq is hard,' Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker once said.”

This is hardly “triumphalism.” In addition, Corn said we can “continue to debate . . . whether Bush's late surge did help nudge Iraq in a better (or less worse) direction.” He is, of course, free to continue to debate it — but Corn has a rather difficult case to make. There is no disputing the fact that the surge has made things a great deal better. Even most of the harshest critics of the Iraq war (like Joe Klein) have conceded that reality. A CNN report from earlier this year found that December 2009 was the first month since the beginning of the Iraq war in which there were no U.S. combat deaths and that the monthly civilian death toll fell to its lowest level since the 2003 war began. “Daily violence has drastically dropped across the country over the past two years,” the report said. That is in large part a result of the surge.

One can certainly argue that the surge hasn't redeemed the Iraq war itself — it might still have been a mistake to have gone to war despite the success of the surge — but that the surge was effective is beyond dispute by serious people.

As for the “Bush lied” mantra cited by Corn: I fully understand that this remains an article of religious faith among many of those on the left. But there is no real evidence for it.

In October 2002, the director of central intelligence issued a National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq's continuing programs of weapons of mass destruction. That document contained the consensus judgments of the intelligence community, based upon the best information available about the Iraqi threat. The NIE reported:

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.

Scores of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Joe Biden and Barack Obama; the United Nations as well as the United States; and intelligence agencies from around the world all believed Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (U.N. Resolution 1441, which was passed unanimously, recognized “the threat Iraq's non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security”). Even nations which opposed the war believed this. In March 2002, for example, August Hanning, the chief of German intelligence, said, “It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years.”

The March 31, 2005, Report to the President by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction — also known as the Silberman-Robb Report — makes it clear that the allegations of willful misrepresentations by the Bush administration were false. Among the bi-partisan report's findings:

The Intelligence Community's Iraq assessments were . . . riddled with errors. Contrary to what some defenders of the Intelligence Community have since asserted, these errors were not the result of a few harried months in 2002. Most of the fundamental errors were made and communicated to policymakers well before the now-infamous NIE of October 2002, and were not corrected in the months between the NIE and the start of the war.

The NIE simply didn't communicate how weak the underlying intelligence was. This was, moreover, a problem that was not limited to the NIE. Our review found that after the publication of the October 2002 NIE but before Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 address to the United Nations, intelligence officials within the CIA failed to convey to policymakers new information casting serious doubt on the reliability of a human intelligence source known as 'Curveball.' This occurred despite the pivotal role Curveball's information played in the Intelligence Community's assessment of Iraq's biological weapons programs, and in spite of Secretary Powell's efforts to strip every dubious piece of information out of his proposed speech. In this instance, once again, the Intelligence Community failed to give policymakers a full understanding of the frailties of the intelligence on which they were relying. [emphases in the original]

As problematic as the October 2002 NIE was, it was not the Community's biggest analytic failure on Iraq. Even more misleading was the river of intelligence that flowed from the CIA to top policymakers over long periods of time — in the President's Daily Brief (PDB) and in its more widely distributed companion, the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB). These daily reports were, if anything, more alarmist and less nuanced than the NIE.

The notion that President Bush would lie his way into a war in which the lie itself would be revealed months after the war began is simply irrational. So is the notion that someone like Gen. Colin Powell — a man of unquestionable honor — willfully misled the public in his U.N. speech. It is not enough for the left that a terrible (and worldwide) mistake was made; they must spin it into a government-wide conspiracy.

Now let's turn to the main point of Corn's column:

The Iraqi civilians who were killed or who lost relatives or homes were not asked their consent for the invasion. Bush and Cheney decided their fate. Yes, Iraqis were living within a repressive state. But, no doubt, many of them had made their accommodations and were not willing to sacrifice a family member for possible regime change. Most citizens of tyrannical states manage to get by. (Ask the Chinese.) At times, populations do rise up, and in these instances, people knowingly assume risks and make sacrifices. (See Iran.) Yet in one of the most anti-democratic actions imaginable, Bush decided that he knew what was best for the Iraqi people — and over a hundred thousand perished.

Here several points need to be made. The first is that any war — including the most just in our history, such as the war against Nazi Germany and Japan — tragically involves the death of innocent civilians. Among the differences between WW II and the Iraq war is that civilian populations were
n't intentionally targeted in the latter and many fewer people perished.

Second, I would be among the last people on the planet to excuse the human rights abuses of China. But in Saddam Hussein we were dealing with one of those rare figures who belong in the category of Pol Pot and Hitler in terms of the sheer malevolence of his regime. We know that during his reign, children and young people were tortured, forcing their parents and relatives to confess to alleged political offenses. Schoolchildren were summarily shot in public — and families of executed children were made to pay for the bullets and coffins used. International human rights groups have documented the methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq; they included electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out of tongues and rape. Saddam Hussein routinely executed political opponents and political prisoners. Human Rights Watch concluded that the Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide against Iraqi Kurds — and estimates are that more than 300,000 Iraqis were executed during Saddam Hussein's reign.

Dexter Filkins, the widely respected New York Times reporter — and no neo-conservative hawk — wrote:

For here, in Hussein, was one of the world's indisputably evil men: he murdered as many as a million of his people, many with poison gas. He tortured, maimed and imprisoned countless more. His unprovoked invasion of Iran is estimated to have left another million people dead. His seizure of Kuwait threw the Middle East into crisis. More insidious, arguably, was the psychological damage he inflicted on his own land. Hussein created a nation of informants — friends on friends, circles within circles — making an entire population complicit in his rule.

It's worth noting that Corn is accusing President Bush of acting arrogantly and anti-democratically in liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam's tyranny — even as Corn, from the safety and comfort of the offices of Mother Jones, had somehow divined that Iraqis were satisfied to “get by” and “make their accommodations” with unspeakable oppression. From all evidence, the Iraqis appear to prefer democracy to a jackboot forever stomping on their faces. Who knew?

Then there is this claim by Corn:

But no one should lose sight of the fact that millions of Iraqis have already lived through the worst due to American actions.

Here's the thing, though: Most of the casualties weren't caused by the United States but by the insurgents and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), aided by Iran — the forces that opposed the liberation. One of the criteria for whether a war is fought justly is the effort to avoid civilian casualties. Does Corn deny that the United States and our allies took great pains to minimize civilian casualties?

Here is the truth some on the left cannot seem to handle: The United States freed the people of Iraq from Saddam and attempted to protect them from the savagery of his remnants, at enormous cost to our nation. The ruthlessness of our enemies turned out to be worse than anyone would have hoped, and we surely made mistakes in the post-major combat phase of the war. To criticize those mistakes is perfectly valid, and so is the argument that the war wasn't worth the cost. Still, a morally serious individual would place the responsibility for the deaths of Iraqi civilians where it belongs: not with America but instead with those who have a burning hatred for her and for liberty. To continually overlook this point is — let's be generous here — an odd omission.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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