Wonkette Book Club: The Wishful Thinking War
Progressives are always being told we need to face reality. There's no way we can have health care for everyone because it's just not realistic. Controlling global warming can't be done because running an advanced economy on clean energy "defies the laws of physics" (according to an oil lobbyist with a BA in political science). A nation simply can't relieve poverty because the iron laws of economic reality mean there must be winners and losers, and the winners get to write the tax laws, sorry. Regardless of what Anne Frank said, people aren't "good at heart" and the sooner you accept that reality, the better. Anyone who says otherwise has their head in the clouds.
Oh, but as Michael Isikoff and David Corn explain in painful detail in our current Wonkette Book Club selection, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Republicans who want to get their war on don't need to be tethered to mere reality, because they know what they're doing.
In 2003, the wise conservatives of the George W. Bush administration went to war in Iraq because they were absolutely certain it had to happen. Further, they expected it would be a fairly easy win with little chance of failure and that the invasion would spark a wave of democratic reform across the region. Along the way, the executive-branch Deciders, from Bush on down, ignored or dismissed any information that pointed to inconvenient realities in Iraq, because their minds were made up. The war was necessary, and it would be easy. Anyone who said otherwise was either irrationally gloomy or outright disloyal.
The more I read Hubris, the more I'm reminded that Donald Trump and his many enablers didn't create "alternative facts." They've simply perfected the art of living entirely in a reality-distortion field. A self-created reality already took America into a disastrous war less than 20 years ago. Those "Just-So" stories the Bush administration told itself killed hundreds of thousands and made the region even more unstable.
This week, we'll be focusing on chapters eight through 14 of Hubris (our first installment is here), and as always, please feel free to hop into the discussion even if you haven't done the assigned reading, because most of us were around at the time and remember a lot of this fuckery. And of course, yes, you're 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?
Close Your Eyes And Make A Wish
Over and over, Isikoff and Corn document how Bush and key players in his administration -- notably Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- had already made up their minds to go to war in Iraq. They didn't look to the intelligence agencies for help in deciding whether Iraq was a threat; instead, Cheney and the others treated the CIA and the National Security Agency as sources for factoids that could be used to win congressional and public support for the war that was definitely going to happen.
The CIA hadn't even prepared a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iraq until Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked for one. That report, summarizing what all the various intel agencies thought was going on in Iraq, was only delivered October 1, 2002, just a couple weeks before the vote to authorize the war. And it was full of dissents from analysts who said the case for Iraq having or even pursuing nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons was weak or even nonexistent. Peter Zimmerman, the scientific adviser to the foreign relations committee, considered the NIE a whole lot of nothing:
On critical points—the tubes, the unmanned aerial drones, the nuclear program—some government agencies had argued that the NIE was wrong. "The dissents leaped out—they're in bold, almost like flashing light," Zimmerman recalled. He had read NIEs before and never seen dissents as striking as these. "I remember thinking," he later said, " 'Boy, there's nothing there. If anybody takes the time to actually read this, they can't believe there actually are major WMD programs.' "
Bush never read it, and neither did most members of Congress. And because the NIE was classified, most Americans didn't learn of those dissents until the war was already underway.
Tell Us A Story
Today's reading also looks closely at the process that led up to crappy, even fraudulent, intel being included in two key speeches, Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, and Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the United Nations. The whole thing now reads as a tragifarce, detailing how Bush came to make the false claim that Iraq was trying to buy millions of tons of "yellowcake" uranium from Niger, even though the "evidence" had been forged and the CIA had cut references to the yellowcake from earlier speeches. (Makes you wonder whether Trump's speeches are even vetted at all.)
Powell's team at least made some effort to verify the intel that went into his UN speech on the supposed Iraqi WMD threat, although ultimately it was still full of unfounded garbage. Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson (now a national security talking head on MSNBC), initially tried to nail down a factual basis for every point in a draft written by Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, but it quickly became "clear the thing was put together by cherry-picking everything from The New York Times to the [Defense Intelligence Agency]," Wilkerson recalled.
Much of the information in Libby's draft, Wilkerson concluded, had come from the Iraqi National Congress—laundered through Feith's operation at the Pentagon. It was maddening. Another State Department official present recalled that "we couldn't figure out where" the WMD allegations in the Libby draft were "coming from….We took it apart piece by piece."
After six hours of work, only a few pages had been vetted. "Finally," Wilkerson recalled, "I threw the paper down on the table and said, 'This isn't going to cut it, ladies and gentlemen. We're never going to get there. We're going to have to have a different method.' And that's when [CIA Director] George [Tenet] said, 'Let's use the NIE.' "
But the NIE included garbage claims, too, based on dubious assertions like the "aluminum tubes" (discussed last week) that were supposedly being used to build uranium centrifuges, but were actually rocket parts. Or based on claims from secondhand sources like the Iraqi defector "Curveball," a serial fabricator who had spoken only to Germany's intelligence agency -- which didn't even trust him, and told US officials that. That's where the supposed "mobile chemical weapons labs" came from.
Happily Ever After
It's bad enough that Bush and company cherry-picked the intel they used to sell the war. Worse, they also ignored intelligence that should have informed the administration's planning for the occupation. While the military managed to make short work of the Iraqi army and topple Saddam (and his statue), it quickly became clear there was no plan at all for what would happen next.
Or rather, as Hubris makes abundantly clear, lots of very well-informed people had given serious thought to postwar planning, but they were ignored because their reports were at odds with the neocons' insistence that once Saddam was gone, Iraq would embrace democracy and a free market economy, and The Troops could go home for their parade. Occupation? What occupation? But long before the invasion, plenty of experts warned that declaring victory too soon might be a bad idea. Even if you have a neat banner that may or may not ever be displayed in your presidential library.
Again, this section of Hubris reads like a chorus of Cassandras shouting "you don't have to fuck this up, but you will!" Analysts in the State Department's intelligence division, the Pentagon, the Army War College, and the the CIA all prepared reports emphasizing that, as one white paper put it, "The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious." The State Department even put together a "Future of Iraq" project that consulted with a range of Iraqi exiles to anticipate problems that could arise following the invasion, with the aim of heading them off.
None of those many reports and working groups were taken seriously by the administration, because they conflicted with the Beautiful Dream. The Army War College's assessment provided a list of 135 major efforts that would be needed to get a new Iraqi government up and running after the invasion -- little stuff like restoring utilities, establishing a police force, and not disbanding the Iraqi army. "Massive resources need to be focused on this [postoccupation] effort well before the first shot is fired," the report urged.
But nah. An unnamed military analyst told Isikoff and Corn he'd heard the report was well-received at US Central Command, but the civilians at the Pentagon had no use for it:
"At that point, the Bush administration was moving rapidly to war," the military analyst said. "Nothing would derail them, and their assumption was that it would be a lot easier than we had put it. They felt arguments that it would be hard were actually designed to cause people to rethink whether the war was worth doing in the first place. [...] So they ended up not properly planning for the aftermath of the invasion because that might interfere with getting the war they wanted. Paul Wolfowitz's whole reason for living was to start that war. They didn't have to listen to us. Somewhere along the line they had decided they were smarter than the rest of us."
The State Department reports were similarly ignored, largely because Team Bush at the Defense Department figured the grifty Iraqi exile "leader" Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress could just waltz in and make a pro-US government happen. Defense Department officials in the office set up for postwar planning were instructed to ignore the Future of Iraq people because the project's director refused to endorse Chalabi.
David Phillips, an analyst who worked on the Future of Iraq project, wrote in his book Losing Iraq that the "ideological rivalry [...] caused a virtual collapse of interagency process," and that "By February 2003, State and Defense officials were barely on speaking terms."
And that's just some of how we got into this mess. It made for a wonderful story, at least.
Hey, can you imagine what might have happened differently if Al Gore had been inaugurated in 2001? Haha, we are joking -- that guy believes in the ridiculous fairy tale of global warming and said he invented the internet. We needed a president who knew fantasy from reality.
Next week: Finish the book! Yes, including the afterwords, silly. Don't worry, there's no test. Except, like, for American Democracy.
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 pictures of your kittycats and grumblings about your idiot neighbor for the open thread, 'K?
Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn / Colin Powell UN speech / "Mission Accomplished" speech at C-SPAN / 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.