Wonkette Book Club: How George W. Bush Turned An Obsession Into A War
We chose this month's Wonkette Book Club book selection shortly after Donald Trump wished the world a Happy New War by assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani via a drone attack in Baghdad. Since then, Trump and his war heads seem to have backed off somewhat from any immediate plans for a shooting war with Iran -- at least until there's another event in the region that might put everyone on edge again. But what are the odds of new tensions in the Middle East?
We figured it might be useful to examine the last time a bunch of hot-headed Republicans got us into a war, and that's why we're reading Michael Isikoff and David Corn's 2006 book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, which as its title suggests isn't so much a military history as an account of the snow job George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a raft of neocons did in convincing America to launch a war of choice in Iraq. There wasn't any need for them to convince themselves: again and again, Isikoff and Corn make clear Bush and company were already committed to ousting Saddam Hussein. Many had even wanted to before 9/11 provided a convenient national security crisis to exploit. And too many members of the media were perfectly willing to suspend their skepticism or even to aid and abet the liars.
As we read Hubris now, some parallels to the still unfolding Trump/Iran situation are obvious -- most notably the constant lies and spin around the motives for killing Soleimani (right down to a bullshit claim that he'd been involved with 9/11) and the facts about Iran's retaliatory missile strike. But the differences are striking, too. Bush et al lied us into a war that they'd wanted for a long time, for some very specific reasons. Trump, who acts based on a combination of longstanding bad ideas about the world plus whatever mood he happens to be in, doesn't seem to have any particular direction or consistent motives at all (beyond what he thinks will gain him money or votes). It remains to be seen whether that makes him even more dangerous than the Bush crew.
As always, feel free to join the discussion even if you haven't done the "assigned" reading (through Chapter 7 this week, although you're also allowed to read ahead, this is not high school). But if you want to talk about something that isn't either the book or this specific topic (Iraq and the parallels to now), please save your comments for the open thread, OK?
My own bad habit when I write these book club thingies is that I tend to go into far too much detail summarizing and blockquoting, so this time out I'll try instead to focus on a few main themes and then turn the discussion over to youse guys.
Adventures In Cherry-Picking
Isikoff and Corn remind us that one standard explanation of the Iraq War is just plain wrong: It's not that the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was "flawed." It's more the case that Bush, and especially Dick Cheney and the head dickwads in the National Security Council, were only interested in intelligence showing there was a case for war -- anything at all -- and so they deliberately downplayed and ignored findings that contradicted the stuff they could seize on to whip up war fever.
Take for instance the "aluminum tubes" that could supposedly "only" be used for centrifuges to enrich uranium. On September 8, 2002, Dick Cheney went on "Meet the Press" and said the tubes amounted to "very clear evidence" Saddam was restarting his nuclear weapons program, saying, "There's a story in The New York Times this morning" -- based on intelligence the administration had given the Times. That was a pretty neat trick, but what's especially infuriating is that the administration consistently ignored that most analysts at the Department of Energy and State Department had determined the aluminum tubes in question were unlikely to work in centrifuges -- they were smaller in diameter, and the walls were too thick. The Energy Department, which knows a thing or two about nuclear weapons production, wrote a report that concluded "Rocket production [...] is the more likely end-use for these tubes."
Ah, but the CIA official who pushed the tubes was very persistent, and said what the administration wanted to hear, so "aluminum tubes" became the "consensus" (which it never was) and the doubters were dismissed as cranks making excuses for Saddam the madman.
It's OK, We Know What We're Doing
Another constant theme, developed in Iraq postmortems like Rajiv Chandrasekaran's brilliant Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) and John Dower's Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (2010), is the Bush administration's deep contempt for experts in the intelligence, diplomatic, and even military communities. Those dumb experts were too stuck in conventional wisdom, cautious insistence on firm facts and documentation, and worst of all, a suspicious tendency not to agree with Bush, Cheney, and company. Instead, the administration favored bold thinkers who weren't stuck in an academic mindset and were willing to see patterns that would "connect the dots" to show a WMD program where the evidence was thin, or a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, even if that made no damn sense from the perspective of either.
When high ranking Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi said, under torture, that Saddam had been training al Qaeda in using chemical and biological weapons, a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis said, in essence, nah, that's dumb:
"Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control."
The DIA analyst was adhering to the commonsense view held by most of the U.S. counterterrorism community. Why would Saddam pass along his chemical and biological know-how -- presumably his most cherished possessions -- to a terrorist group that owed its allegiance to someone else? For years, bin Laden had railed about "apostate" Arab states led by "infidel" leaders who failed to follow the words of the Prophet. Saddam was clearly one such leader. His secular Baathist regime would have to fall for bin Laden to achieve his goal of a new Islamic caliphate. "I never thought Saddam was crazy," said Michael Scheuer, a CIA analyst who once headed the bin Laden unit. "He was never going to give these guys weapons -- because al-Qaeda would have been just as likely to use them against him as they would against the United States. They hated Saddam."
But the DIA's dissent never registered.
Again and again, Isikoff and Corn show intelligence professionals and the administration not even working from the same premises. The intelligence people, for the most part, saw their job as providing facts that would help America's leaders decide whether Iraq presented a risk. But the administration had already decided to go to war, and so it only wanted facts that might be useful in selling war with Iraq to Congress and to the public.
It's like a college student writing a term paper and only using InfoWars and Breitbart articles because they're favorable to their argument, while pretending more reliable journalism or scholarship is irrelevant, because after all, those are a bunch of liberals. That contempt for expertise has only gotten worse in the Trump years.
The Nutty Professor
Along those lines, we have to thank Isikoff and Corn for detailing the influence of weirdass former Harvard professor Laurie Mylroie, who wanted to have the international influence of a Henry Kissinger, but whose mind worked far more like Alex Jones. Mylroie initially thought Saddam could be a great player for Middle East Peace, but after Iraq invaded Kuwait, she decided -- possibly because she'd been so wrong -- that in fact Saddam was the mastermind of all islamic terror in the world, including the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and 9/11. Somehow, Mylroie's delusional theories managed to find devout adherents in two key Bush administration thinkerers, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former CIA Director James Woolsey, along with others who pushed for war with Iraq. Chapter 4, on Mylroie and her crackpot ideas, is a terrific case study of how bad ideas, if they get to the right people, can poison politics and lead to people getting killed. Even if you don't have the book, take a look at this piece Corn wrote in 2015, when Wolfowitz turned up again as a foreign policy adviser to Jeb Bush. Yeesh.
Christ, what an asshole.
Update: Thanks to my own carelessly misreading a pronoun, I initially referred to Mylroie as "he." She is still nuts, but also a woman. Wonkette regrets the error.
And as usual, we've only hit a few points here but we'll turn the discussion over to you Terrible Ones. For next Sunday, your assigned reading in Hubris will be Chapters 9 through 8 through 14, and we'll finish up the book on February 2, with Chapters 15 through the afterword (both of 'em, if you have the 2007 paperback, which is where our Wonkette Kickback linky goes.)
Discuss amongst yourselves! What looks familiar? What's different? What the hell should we (our the People In Charge) have learned that we (or they) didn't? And where are the Curveballs of yesteryear?
Reminder: Please save comments that are wholly off topic for the Open Thread, which will go up in a while. Yr Friendly Neighborhood Comments Moderator will be fairly aggressive in flagging off-topic posts and asking you to take 'em elsewhere. You can talk about war stuff, your own thoughts on Bush, the Iraq War, and whatever the hell it is that's happening now with Iran, and I encourage recommendations for other reading, too! But save grumblings about bad drivers or the latest dumb Trump tweet for elsewhere (unless the dipshit is tweeting about Iran again).
Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn / Mother Jones]
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.