To the Editors:
Thomas Powers [“What Tenet Knew,” NYR, July 19] does an admirable job as usual of analyzing the misdeeds and mistakes of US intelligence agencies. But in providing a scathing critique of former CIA director George Tenet’s cowardly performance in the runup to the US invasion of Iraq, Powers fails to address the central question: What were the real reasons for the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein?
Powers dismantles one by one the planks in the administration’s rationale (WMDs, alleged ties to al-Qaeda), but just mentions in passing another possible reason cited by an unnamed CIA analyst—“to settle old scores.”
Independent observers have speculated on at least three possible underlying reasons: (1) the desire to improve access to Iraq’s abundant oil resources; (2) the desire to improve Israel’s security by removing the most powerful implacable Arab foe of Israel; (3) settling old scores, which could mean finishing the job the first President Bush failed to accomplish in 1991 by overthrowing Saddam, or retaliating for Saddam’s alleged attempt to arrange the assassination of Bush père. (Admittedly, this would have the United States going to war because a son wanted to prove himself to his father, which raises the folly to a higher level still.)
It’s clear by now that neither the facts nor any realistic notion of national interest drove the US invasion. Surely Powers owes us his best assessment of the real motives for war.
Takoma Park, Maryland
Thomas Powers replies:
Bob Guldin in his letter raises an important question which the new Democratic majority in both houses of Congress has so far declined to explore. In the year before the war the Bush administration defined Iraq as a problem, and rejected every solution that did not involve regime change under American control following the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Guldin offers three possible motives for this insistence on removing Saddam Hussein while establishing a large-scale, long-term American military presence in the Middle East.
It’s my view that all these motives—the lure of Iraqi oil, making the Middle East safe for Israel, and settling old scores—played a part, but none entirely captures the central idea in the minds of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. What’s particularly odd is that there seems to be no sophisticated, professional, insiders’ version of the thinking that drove events. Foreign policy professionals unroll the familiar story of worry about weapons of mass destruction, “intelligence failures,” and dreams of democracy in the Middle East—a one-thing-led-to-another interpretation that relieves the administration of having to explain what it really had in mind.
My “best assessment of the real motives for war” suffers from the obstacle common to all assessments—none of the principals has been talking. But the fact that Bush, Cheney, and company had a central idea seems unmistakable to me. Their determination to invade and occupy Iraq says a great deal by itself. A useful way to look at things is to recall the reaction in Washington to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Sympathy for the Afghans was several places down the list. What most aroused Washington, and American allies in Europe, was the prospect that the Soviet Union would keep on going to fulfill a longstanding Russian dream of establishing a military presence on the Persian Gulf. The prospect of that had policymakers like Zbigniew Brze-zinski seriously worried, because Soviet control of the movement of oil would provide a mighty tool for coercion of the entire developed world.
What it was only feared the Rus-sians might do the Americans have actually done—they have planted themselves squarely astride the world’s largest pool of oil, in a position potentially to control its movement and to coerce all the governments who depend on that oil. Americans naturally do not suspect their own motives but others do. The reaction of the Russians, the Germans, and the French in the months leading up to the Iraq war suggests that none of them wished to give Americans the power which Brzezinski had feared was the goal of the Soviets. In any event, the planting of a large-scale, long-term American military presence in the Middle East represents a huge strategic initiative—a gamble, in fact, of the sort that makes or breaks empires.
Just as interesting as the Bush administration’s motives for going to war is the evident wish of the Democratic majority not to know what they were. How else to explain the failure to probe this question deeply? The Democratic majority is equally reluctant to question the drift of events now. All assume that the 2006 midterm elections marked the beginning of the end of the American adventure in Iraq. All favor some form or degree of withdrawal. But none to my ear seems to grasp that getting out will take just as much resolution as getting in—and something else as well, which Bush has in plenty: willingness to ignore the consequences. On this rock Democrats already seem to have run aground. The administration, meanwhile, shows no sign of abandoning its goals, and on the points that matter, Democrats seem to go along.
Three developments are particularly troubling—the administration’s insistence that the surge is working but that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is failing; the growing tendency to blame Iranian “meddling” for military failures in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and what appears to be a changing of horses—back to the Sunnis—in midstream.
Consider the evidence of a policy reversal: immediately after the fall of Baghdad the US insisted on aggressive de-Baathification, in effect barring Sunnis from top jobs in the government and military. Now the administration is insisting that al-Maliki relax de-Baathification rules to bring Sunnis back into the government. At the same time the US military is creating battlefield alliances with Sunni insurgents, is encouraging the admission of Sunnis into the security and military services, and has remained silent while two separate groups of Sunni cabinet ministers have withdrawn from the al-Maliki government. It is likely that the US even encouraged the second group of defections by ministers loyal to Iyad Alawi, who has had close ties to the CIA for decades. Americans may not notice what is going on but the Shiites do. The obvious danger when the surge began in February was that we would bring the Shiites into the war against us. This now appears to have happened. The New York Times on August 25 reported the conviction of the military “that 78 percent of attacks against the United States are now carried out by Shiites.” More remarkable still is the fact that a Democratic leader, Senator Carl Levin, has called for removal of the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, al-Maliki. Does no Democrat worry that a widened war with the Shiites of Iraq will bring a danger of war with the Shiites of Iran?
American political leaders, Republicans as well as Democrats, did not ask hard questions before voting for war in 2002, they have not asked hard questions about the President’s goals in the five years since, and they are not asking hard questions now about the true nature and prospects of the bold imperial adventure which the White House PR machine insists on calling a “war on terror.” I have thought from the first day of war that it would destroy two presidents—suck up all their energy and attention, while every other matter of importance was allowed to drift. Two presidents, I thought, because the second in the early flush of triumph at winning the White House would look for a new strategy to put off or disguise the reality of failure, much as Nixon did in 1969. Of course the new strategy would fail, and the new president would find him- or herself insisting that the new strategy needed more time, or that someone else—Iran perhaps—was to blame. The lesson of Vietnam is that it doesn’t take long to get stuck. Not knowing why we went in allowed us to go in; not knowing why we should get out will make it impossible to get out. None of the presidential candidates seems to know why we are failing, or to understand what is imperial about the way we deal with Iraq, or to sense that a bigger war is just another mistake away. I don’t know what we can do about this.
—August 29, 2007