Will is a science teacher in the northwest who sends me the very occasional but deeply considered commentary on the show. Read this one:
I greatly appreciated your interview with Mr. Morell on his new book and his service. It was refreshing to hear someone who not only defends some of what was done in the time post 9-11, but also knows specifically that of which he speaks. But there are two things that I hear constantly, even from most Conservatives now that greatly bug me. They bug me because when I served in the Navy, I learned that some of what is now being called a failure of the intelligence community was nothing of the sort, it was more accurately, a failure of Iraq that even their own leadership did not know at the time.
First, let me explain to you where I am coming from. I was admittedly a very low level enlisted person in military intelligence. I joined the Navy in November of 1996, intending to serve my country, gain the benefit of going to language school, but then to return after 1 tour to a civilian life as a science teacher. I was 25 years old when I signed up, had graduated from The University of Idaho with an education degree, emphasis in Chemistry and Biology, then had taught for one year as a long term sub. After that first year, I determined I needed to grow up a little more before working with kids, and to improve my odds of a teaching job post military, I decided I signed up for six years and passed the tests and got the clearances to go to language school. My schools were boot camp at Great Lakes, language school at DLI, and tech school at an Air Force base. (I don’t think the school locations are classified, but I am leaving them out intentionally). I went in enlisted rather than attempting to go in officer because I was not considering a career and because I specifically wanted language school. After 2 years of schooling, I went to my duty station, on an army base in the states. From December of 1998 to April of 2000, I was an operator, as the job description says “Listening to routing foreign language communication” in Arabic. In this time, I heard regularly, not through hearsay or second hand, but personally, that Iraq (and Syria) were maintaining chemical weapons. I would on occasion hear that Iraq was doing rocket tests for rockets designed to carry nuclear payloads. From April of 2000 to October of 2002, I was a cryptanalyst, breaking codes in addition to listening. In this job, we heard the Iraqis regularly lock on or attempt to lock on SAMs against our planes patrolling the no fly zone. There was no doubt in our minds that Iraq still had the WMDs it had used against its own people in the 90s and against Iran in the 80s.
I have heard enough of this said publically, that I do not think it is still classified. But the fact is, even at my very very low level, we heard multiple confirmations that the chemical weapons Saddam used in the Iran-Iraq War and in the early 90s against his own Kurds still existed and were being maintained. We heard references to other WMD types (specifically Nuclear). In the year I served post 9-11, there was massive amounts of truck traffic from Iraq into Syria. All of this was known. All of this has been said elsewhere. And yet high level intel people from that era now say there were no WMDs and our intel was a mistake. These statements are what lead to the pressure for people to say “Knowing what we know now, I would not go into Iraq.” As your guest stated, that question is kind of irrelevant and unfair, but it also is incomplete. There were WMDs. They may have been old and poor quality, but they still existed and the military was still training as if to use them.
Apart from WMDs, which I do not accept as such a complete intel failure, there were several other compelling reasons to change the regime in Iraq:
1) Saddam was supporting terrorism. No, not Al Qaida, and despite bleats from the media, Bush never claimed that. But he was actively supporting suicide bombers in Israel, sending checks to families, allowing training in the desert. He was open and active in his praise of terrorists, and had we entered Afghanistan and left him in place, he, like Iran, would have been a thorn in our side, an active support to those in Afghanistan opposing us.
2) We had well over 30,000 troops tied up dealing with containment of Iraq. We had air force assets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, we had Navy assets in the Gulf, we had pilots in harms way daily enforcing no fly zones, monitoring Iraqi activity, protecting Kurds and marsh Shi’ites, and our long term presence in Saudi Arabia was used as a recruiting tool by Osama Bin Laden, it was not feasible that it last forever. The Iraqi leadership was still a threat in a variety of ways, and would not have been a silent entity had we entered Afghanistan and left them alone.
3) Saddam was a destabilizing force in the region. From Turkey to Jordan, to the Saudis and Gulf Sheikhs, our allies were under pressure from the presence of Saddam. He started the war with Iran in 1980, he invaded Kuwait just two years after it ended in 1990, and he made threatening noises to anyone and everyone who allied in any way with America. Had we, in order to focus on Afghanistan, pulled assets out of Iraq containment, he would have struck again. There is no doubt in my mind, whether it was Jordan, Kuwait again, or Saudi Arabia, he would have attempted to punish an ally. He was a militarist with Nasser-like dreams of uniting the Arabs under himself and saw removal of western influence from the region as a means to that end.
4) When you study history, it is a striking example to us the differing outcomes of our prior wars. In 1898, after the Spanish American War, we attempted to put into place friendly governments in The Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico after we drove out the Spanish. Annexed Puerto Rico was very stable, The Philippines, with a long term military presence had problems, but was mostly stable, and Cuba, with minimal presence, degenerated with our inaction over 60 years, to a point where Communists were able to overthrow the corrupt and failing government. These three examples showed the more hands on approach led to better stability. After WWI, America had no desire for foreign war, the atrocities of trench warfare and cynical self promotion of the French and British to colonize the broken pieces of the Ottoman Empire drew Americans to a dream of isolationism, to convince themselves that like we had been from the 1840s to the 1890s, we could turn inward and the world would go on without us, and we would be protected in our “Fortress America” behind our oceanic walls. In our withdrawal and European ineptitude, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and fascism in Italy rose into the power vacuum and we had to fight a horrific war to protect ourselves. Post WWII, the Marshall Plan to rebuild and restructure Japan and West Germany were incredibly effective tools in stabilizing and pacifying these once aggressive enemies. Bush, in my opinion, saw Iraq as a chance to implement a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan. To remove a clear and active threat, and replace it with a Republic, to show the people of the Middle East that unlike the post Ottoman British and French, we were not colonizers, but bringers of freedom, was in his mind the best way to combat the threat. Remember too, that after the 2003 invasion, Libya voluntarily walked away from its WMD program and allowed inspectors in, our allies in small ways, began to liberalize their strict holds on their people, and Iran toned down its belligerence in a small degree. The removal of Saddam was a sobering wake up call to all other military and religious dictators in the region, that it was entirely possible that they could be next. Many Conservatives now like to say we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, we should have plastered Afghanistan with bombs and killed Osama then walked away saying never again. But History shows us that from Germany to Japan to South Korea, and even less perfect examples like Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and The Philippines, our engagement, not our withdrawal, is what provides a chance of positive outcomes.
5) Our containment, and our acceptance of the status quo in the region, were not working. From the Embassy in Tehran in 1979, through Beirut in 83, World Trade Center in 93, African Embassies in 98, Khobar Towers, USS Cole, and dozens of other smaller examples, we were a target of terrorism long before 9-11. Smaller but no less horrible, these and other attacks should have been wake up calls that we needed to do something, something substantive, to try to change the death culture that was flourishing under military strong men who used the rhetoric for their own agendas, true zealots like Bin Laden, the Iranian Ayatollah, and others who welcome death an destruction as a means to apocalypse. 9-11 was a seminal event in history, but contrary to many narratives now, it was not out of the blue, it was not unique in the effort, only in the effectiveness (from their point of view).
Bush and his team saw the need to change the equation on the ground, and they tried. Unfortunately, they did make mistakes:
First, in trying to show how we were different than colonizing powers before us, they rushed elections and returning power to Iraqis before they were ready. MacArthur and the US military government that occupied Japan held full power for 7 years after the war. They did not even begin to govern until Japan fully and unconditionally surrendered. In Iraq, we were still putting out fires and fighting insurgents until well after the surge. It probably would have been best to have a massive occupying force and military government until there was stability.
Second, from what I have read, the goals and intent of the military government was always to return power to Japanese, but powers were returned as progress was made, not all at once. The Korean War led to large reductions in US troops in Japan, but Japanese police forces were under US control in the beginning, not freed to become armed wings of individuals or religious factions.
Third, Iraq was fundamentally different that Japan in that Islam is a divided religion. Both Shinto and Islam preach that outsiders are lesser, and that government and religious faith ought to be one, but after WWII, the Emperor Hirohito acknowledged the need for change and in the stable post war occupation, Japan changed. Islamists never accepted that any fault was their own. More like post Versailles Germany, from the beginning factions in Iraq and outside of Iraq were attempting to turn things in their own favor. Shi’ite, Sunni, and all manner of small subgroups of Islam and ethnic categories are all trying to carve out their own power center rather than work within a power sharing government to meet the needs of their group. More accurate than surrendered Japan would have been the chaos left in Korea after the Japanese were removed, and the US and Russia ineffectively governed a country with no infrastructure or unity, at cross purposes with each other and rival factions within Korea, and eventually the Korean War tore it apart.
My point is, Hugh, I think the rush to run from George W. Bush by Republicans is a huge mistake, and one the party has made repeatedly. In the 20s, revulsion over the horrors of WWI led to isolationism in America, led by Republicans. In the post WWII years, the Republicans split with an anti-Truman wing calling for stronger military action and another anti Truman wing of Republicans calling for Isolationism (Where the Fortress America quote came from). In the 60s, the Isolationism was a left wing fringe, and remained so through the remainder of the cold war up until about 2004. And now in the Post Iraq and Afghanistan era, Isolationism is rearing its head again on the Right, and our Presidential Candidates are mistaken if they think they can say Iraq was a mistake instead of clarifying with the more accurate statement mistakes were made in Iraq, but the idea, the reasoning for going to war, and the plan to rebuild Iraq after the war, were fundamentally sound though botched in execution, especially after 2008. Sadly, had a strong and coherent President followed Bush, Iraq could have been a success story, but too many of our people buy into Isolationism that the incoherence and ineptness of Obama, not the initial actions of Bush led to. Our candidate needs to have a clear vision of foreign policy, not vague Reaganesque statements followed by Obamaesque blaming America first or succumb to Isolationist temptation follies. While you harp on rebuilding Americas Military, an act I believe is essential to any future role we are to play in world affairs, a clearly defined foreign policy of promoting growth and stable republics must also be part of the vision. To allow this view to be dismissed as Neocon is to create the vacuum that we have seen bad actors fill time after time throughout history. We have seen the results of isolating ourselves, and it isn’t pretty. It will be less so in the Nuclear era.