Friday, May 4, 2007

Contra Krauthammer (Vol. 2)

Everyone's favorite psychiatrist-turned-pundit Charles Krauthammer has released this jaunty little diatribe excoriating George Tenet's new autobiography as an absurd reinvention of history. Full disclosure: I have not read Tenet's book nor, frankly, do I intend to. Post-political memoirs can make for illuminating reading, but only when they are written with the benefit of time and distance, and with some purpose at least marginally more expansive than the issuing of a post-hoc "screw you" to one's erstwhile critics. As far as I'm concerned, Krauthammer is being overly charitable when he characterizes George Tenet's legacy as "mixed." The fact is, irrespective of his success in engineering the takedown of the Taliban, Tenet's role as an enabler of the Bush Administration's catastrophe in Iraq borders on unforgivable. As Maureen Dowd in one of her rare bits of insight recently argued, if Tenet had as many problems with the Administration's Iraq plans as he now alleges he did, he should have resigned. If something as important as war does not merit a bit of personal sacrifice on behalf of reason and principle, I don't know what does. The same, by the way, goes for Colin Powell.

I do agree with Krauthammer that Tenet seems to be reinventing history, or at least heavily sanitizing it. That, however, is as far as my agreement goes. Krauthammer's reasons for rejecting Tenet's story could not be more misguided. I offer the following passage:

Tenet writes as if he assumes no one remembers anything. For example: "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat."

Does he think no one remembers President Bush explicitly rejecting the imminence argument in his 2003 State of the Union address in front of just about the largest possible world audience? Said the president, " Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent" -- and he was not one of them. That in a post-Sept. 11 world, we cannot wait for tyrants and terrorists to gentlemanly declare their intentions. Indeed, elsewhere in the book Tenet concedes that very point: "It was never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise."

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, both Krauthammer's and Tenet's arguments depend on what the meaning of "imminent" is. In the interest of being thorough, I'll turn to Webster for a moment:

imminent : ready to take place; especially : hanging threateningly over one's head.

This definition at least partially helps to concretize the debate. In the parlance of international relations and international law, "imminence" has historically indicated the presence of a clear, immediate and obvious threat. The classic modern example is that of Arab armies massing on Israel's borders in 1967. However much some have argued after the fact that the Syrians and the Egyptians didn't really want to invade, most outside observers agree that the kind of military mass-mobilization that occurred in the Sinai and along the Golan Heights in that fateful year constituted an "imminent" threat in the legal sense of the term. Essentially, the threat was so great, and the harmful intentions so obvious, that it was Arab actions that initiated a de facto state of war, irrespective of who fired the first shots.

It is this interpretation of imminence that Bush rejected in 2003. The President argued that the destructive capacity of some modern weapons, combined with the potential stealth with which they can be delivered, precludes the luxury of being able to wait until both the existence of a threat and the intention to make good on it are beyond question. Frankly, I agree with the President, at least in part. The world is a dangerous place, and there are absolutely times when security demands preemptive action. Notice, though, that I say preemptive and not preventative. Preemptive wars eliminate threats that have a good chance of being carried out (even if the threat is somewhat less blatantly obvious than it would be under the original "imminence" standard), preventative wars simply eliminate threats. The distinction is fine, but important. Under the standards of preventative war, "imminence" merely indicates some vague notion of danger, inflated with dishonest language, that justifies striking first.

Iraq was decidedly a preventative war. Saddam was attacked based on the threats that he could, eventually, if given the right environment and enough breathing space, pose to U.S. interests. The problem was that Iraq was sold to the American people as a preemptive war. We were led to believe that the Iraqi regime had both the means and the will to attack the American people at any time, and that its removal was vital to our immediate physical security. Bush may have rejected the "imminence argument" in theory; however, he relied upon it in rhetoric, painting Iraq as an imminent threat and using that portrayal to drag his country into a catastrophic war. Again, I suppose it all depends on how you define the word "imminent."

Krauthammer tries to blur the distinction with another bit of irritating historical gymnastics. Evidently, Bush Administration policy towards Iraq was really nothing new:

For the entire decade following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was the single greatest threat in the region and therefore the most important focus of U.S. policy. U.N. resolutions, congressional debates and foreign policy arguments were seized with the Iraq question and its many post-Gulf War complications -- the weapons of mass destruction, the inspection regimes, the cease-fire violations, the no-fly zones, the progressive weakening of sanctions.

Krauthammer, of course, ignores the elephant in the room, namely that while the post-Gulf War United States was always "extremely concerned" about Iraq, it never tried to invade and topple the regime there. By way of historical comparison, it was the difference between the 1970s era of U.S.-Soviet detente and the 1980s era of brinksmanship and escalation. During both periods, the U.S. was "extremely concerned" about the Soviet Union - the two countries remained enemies after all - but the aggressiveness with which America dealt with that concern changed markedly. Of course the Clinton Administration was concerned with containing Saddam and limiting his power in the region. Nobody is suggesting that the Bush Administration should not have been equally vigilant; however, to posit that Clinton-era containment and Bush-era invasion were merely two sides of the same coin is absurd. The Administration clearly understood how drastic the change in policy was, which was why they had to mount such a large-scale public information campaign (I'm charitably in avoiding the word "propaganda") in order to convince people of the serious and, yes, imminent nature of the Iraqi threat.

I take serious issue with one final passage, because it exemplifies a phenomenon that goes beyond Mr. Krauthammer, namely the tendency of the Iraq debacle's architects to justify their actions by noting that it was not only neo-conservatives who supported the war:

The decision to go to war was made by a war cabinet consisting of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. No one in that room could even remotely be considered a neoconservative. Nor could the most important non-American supporter of the war to this day -- Tony Blair, father of new Labor. ... Outside of government, the case for war was made not just by the neoconservative Weekly Standard but -- to select almost randomly -- the traditionally conservative National Review, the liberal New Republic and the center-right Economist. Of course, most neoconservatives supported the war, the case for which was also being made by journalists and scholars from every point on the political spectrum -- from the leftist Christopher Hitchens to the liberal Tom Friedman to the centrist Fareed Zakaria to the center-right Michael Kelly to the Tory Andrew Sullivan.

First off, to claim that Bush's war cabinet was free of neo-conservatives is ridiculous. Both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were signatories to the Project for the New American Century's 1997 Statement of Principles, along with Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby among others. Maybe in Kruathammer's mind they aren't real neo-cons, but their vision of a world led in perpetuity by a muscular, unilateral, democracy-promoting, militarily-mighty United States makes them partisans in my view.

As for the notion that the Iraq war was supported from across the ideological spectrum, Krauthammer is depressingly right, at least in the most literal sense. That broad support, though, stemmed largely from the belief that Saddam's Iraq posed a much larger, much more imminent threat to the United States and it's regional interests than was actually the case. This notion did not come from thin air, but rather from dubious intelligence that was cherry-picked and inflated by the Administration with the deliberate purpose of framing public debate in a way that the threat posed by Iraq would not be seriously questioned. The New Republic article that Krauthammer links to makes that abundantly clear. I do not suggest that the American media and intellectual establishment did not fail to approach the Administration's claims critically - they did so fail, miserably in fact - merely that they had a marginally better excuse.

Tenet's book may rewrite history. Frankly, if I were George Tenet, I'd like the opportunity to do so myself. Still, Charles Krauthammer and his neo-conservative colleagues have plenty of their own explaining to do.

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