Here's why I'm not happy with the fourth estate today. While the anger is understandable, I think journalists are making a mistake by going after Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld and pillorying them for incompetence. By all means, pillory the politicians. But please, do it well. The incompetence route is a rather lazy justification for the shitshow the U.S. and U.K. keep failing to not make worse in the Persian Gulf. The Vice article seems to imply that the tenuous connection between Iraq and terrorism was sloppy, a poor excuse to ramrod jus ad bellum down the throat of white public opinion. I believe this is only partially true.
If you wrangled out an honest answer from the architects of the Iraqi Invasion, they would probably give you this perfectly serviceable and totally sincere soundbyte: "We may have been misguided in our efforts, but we were doing it with the best interests of the citizens of the United States in mind." What's hard for people to grasp, I guess, is that international politics is extraordinarily difficult to get right. It seems to me that it is very hard to balance the public's demand for a good story they can get behind, the corporate interests who will finance and equip whatever actions you want to take, and all of the other state administrations, NGOs, and extralegal state affiliates involved in the international political arena, not to mention the popular opinion of peoples throughout the globe.
I realize I'm beating around the bush here. What I mean to say is, when we assume that the United States government was the central player in the decision to send troops to Iraq in order to depose Saddam Hussein, we may be willfully ignoring the fact that there may have been many other players in the international arena who made that decision happen.
This isn't meant to exculpate the government from responsibility for what happened, but more to suggest that it is far more complicated than pointing fingers at the guilty party. We don't even have an adequate understanding of who all the parties might be. Furthermore, even if we could just run around blaming those responsible and calling it a day, we should be thinking more about how the American public failed to be more vigilant against this exercise in mass deception.
So who might these other players be? I'm specifically thinking about Saudi Arabia. On February 14, 1945, FDR and King Abdulaziz (also known as Ibn Saud) met aboard the USS Quincy on the Great Bitter Lake. One of the notable outcomes of this meeting was that the United States would have special access to Saudi oil and land for military bases in return for not meddling in Arab culture - specifically, the Islamic integrity of the state and its body-politic. This meeting would have major implications for the shape of US policy in the Middle East. What the Saudi government gave the US was not just guarantees of oil, but also a strategic alliance, eyes and ears in the Arab world, and an opportunity for investment in the Saudi economy. Why would the United States invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein? It has nothing to do with the freedom of the Iraqi people. The US has a long and storied history of backing dictatorships all over the world. "Iraqi Freedom" was just a cynical ploy to get the American public on board with minimal insistence on actually understanding the conflict. I believe one possibility was that Saddam was gearing up for another war of expansion and the Saudis wanted the US to nip this thing in the bud.
Let's rewind a bit. Going back to Political Science 101, I think it's safe to gloss Saddam's actions in Kuwait in 1991 as one of those wars of expansion, if not to expand the sovereign territory of Iraq, then to impose a puppet government on the Kuwaitis, thereby extending the Iraqi sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia would want none of this. As the preeminent financial power in the region, they wanted to protect the status quo as much as possible. Relying on the United States was a way of "passing the buck" so that the inexperienced (though generously equipped) Saudi forces would not get mired in a potentially catastrophic war with Iraqi forces. This would also keep this from becoming an all-out war between Islamic nations, which I think would be a reasonable priority for a government that stakes its legitimacy at home and abroad as a spiritual leader to the global Islamic community. As we all should know, the US took up the cause and defeated Iraq in a decisive victory.
Now for Operation: Iraqi Freedom. In the NIE report, a big deal was made about how the US investigators knew those aluminum tubes were probably not related to WMD activity, It seemed that the prevailing opinion was that it was uncertain, but probably related to rocket ballistics. I think this leads us to one possible speculation about the purpose of the Iraq invasion: it was a very early preemptive strike against a potential war of aggression by Saddam.
But there is a second possibility, and I think it has to do with the deposition of Saddam's government. If I'm not mistaken, the US government made a specific decision not to overthrow Saddam during the Gulf War, even though the Saudi officials were pushing for this kind of intervention. This second interpretation suggests to me that the United States finally bowed to Saudi pressure and decided to invade Iraq under many fabricated pretexts in order to save face with the international community and the American public. In other words, the shitty justifications for invading Iraq that seemed to change from day to day were actually a way for the US government to hide certain realities about the modern balance of international power from the rest of the world. I think this is a much more reasonable explanation of the official inconsistencies and shoddy reasoning that won public support for the war than simple tropes like "Dick and Don were evil masterminds and George was the idiot who went along with it."
Then was the U.S. just a Saudi patsy? That's too strong of a formulation. But what I do want to suggest is that Vice's analysis of the declassified report perpetuates a certain myth about the central influence of American high officials in determining what happens elsewhere in the world. This omission inevitably distorts the story journalists try to give readers, through a forced reliance on cliche in order to explain to people how or why the government could have let things get so out of hand. I think this is a sign that the United States is no longer (and perhaps has not been for some time) the dominant mover and shaker in world politics today. I think the American people would be the very last to know and the very last to admit that this were already true. You can see it in the way American commentators talk about Chinese ascendancy, as if this fall from preeminence has yet to come, and could only come from a competitor state like China rather than an ally like Saudi Arabia. They would rather believe that their government was just hijacked by a few bad apples than realize that this country, despite its military and financial power, simply does not call the shots on the world stage.