I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Why is being right or wrong on Iraq so irrelevant?

(updated below)

With more and more prominent administration supporters now admitting that our invasion of Iraq has turned out to be a disaster, and acknowledging that a vicious and tragic religious civil war is rapidly unfolding, it is worth recalling what Howard Dean was saying prior to the invasion about why he thought it was ill-advised based on the evidence that we knew then.

Dean was pilloried by virtually all Republicans, by many Democrats and by the national media -- not only for his opposition to the war but also for the rationale on which he predicated that opposition. As a result of his belief that we ought to at least wait until we knew for sure if Saddam had WMDs before we started a war, Dean was relentlessly depicted as a fringe, irresponsible, appeasing lunatic who knew nothing about foreign policy or the grave dangers we face in the world.

Here are excerpts from a speech Dean gave on February 17, 2003 -- just over a month before we invaded -- at Drake University:

I believe it is my patriotic duty to urge a different path to protecting America's security: To focus on al Qaeda, which is an imminent threat, and to use our resources to improve and strengthen the security and safety of our home front and our people while working with the other nations of the world to contain Saddam Hussein. . . .

Had I been a member of the Senate, I would have voted against the resolution that authorized the President to use unilateral force against Iraq - unlike others in that body now seeking the presidency.

To this day, the President has not made a case that war against Iraq, now, is necessary to defend American territory, our citizens, our allies, or our essential interests.

The Administration has not explained how a lasting peace, and lasting security, will be achieved in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is toppled.

I, for one, am not ready to abandon the search for better answers.

As a doctor, I was trained to treat illness, and to examine a variety of options before deciding which to prescribe. I worried about side effects and took the time to see what else might work before proceeding to high-risk measures. . . .

We have been told over and over again what the risks will be if we do not go to war.

We have been told little about what the risks will be if we do go to war.

If we go to war, I certainly hope the Administration's assumptions are realized, and the conflict is swift, successful and clean. I certainly hope our armed forces will be welcomed like heroes and liberators in the streets of Baghdad. I certainly hope Iraq emerges from the war stable, united and democratic. I certainly hope terrorists around the world conclude it is a mistake to defy America and cease, thereafter, to be terrorists.

It is possible, however, that events could go differently, and that the Iraqi Republican Guard will not sit out in the desert where they can be destroyed easily from the air.

It is possible that Iraq will try to force our troops to fight house to house in the middle of cities - on its turf, not ours - where precision-guided missiles are of little use. . . .

There are other risks. Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms.

Iran and Turkey each have interests in Iraq they will be tempted to protect with or without our approval. . . .

Some people simply brush aside these concerns, saying there were also a lot of dire predictions before the first Gulf War, and that those didn't come true.

We have learned through experience to have confidence in our armed forces - and that confidence is very well deserved.

But if you talk to military leaders, they will tell you there is a big difference between pushing back the Iraqi armed forces in Kuwait and trying to defeat them on their home ground.

There are limits to what even our military can do. Technology is not the solution to every problem.

Dean also warned that getting mired and distracted in Iraq would enable Kim Il Jong to build up North Korea's nuclear threat, and that "North Korea is a far greater danger to world peace than Iraq." And this is what Dean said about Colin Powell's oh-so-convincing effort at the U.N. to convince the world that Saddam had WMDs: " I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness. . ."

Was there anything Dean was wrong about or his critics right about? And that was just all in one speech. But it sure was fun to ridicule Howard Dean and all the pacifistic, American-hating losers who supported him. Apparently, the fun of doing that hasn't subsided one bit, despite the fact that Dean was not just right, but prescient in almost everything he said about Iraq.

The real geniuses in the national media and both political parties back then knew that Saddam had WMD's, that it would be so very easy for us to invade and get rid of the weapons and set up the country we wanted. Anyone who said otherwise was just an appeasing hysteric. All that depressing talk about civil wars and insurgencies was just the defeatist paranoia of weaklings who were the new Neville Chamberlains.

And this went on even after the invasion. In December, 2003, Dean's questioning of whether the capture of Saddam really made American safer subjected him to great ridicule from most corners. And when Dean, in December 2005, compared Iraq to Vietnam by pointing out that there was no reason to stay any longer if we couldn't fulfill our objectives, he was again widely ridiculed and attacked, and labelled a coward and a traitor.

This is worth noting not because all of that was conventional wisdom back then, but because -- unfathomably -- it is still the conventional wisdom. Howard Dean is still considered a far left extremist who is completely "unserious" about national security and whose party -- all together now -- can't be trusted with national security.

If you want to know what the U.S. should do about the new Middle East war and any other complex, grave national security matter, you have to talk to Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes and Stephen Hadley and Peter Beinart and Joe Lieberman and John McCain and Tom Friedman and Rich Lowry and Newt Gingrich and all the other "serious" tough guys who might have been wrong about every single thing they said about Iraq but, for some reason that is impossible to discern, are supposed to be the only ones with any credibility on these questions -- still. But whatever you do, just don't listen to Howard Dean or anyone of his ilk, no matter how right he might have been about Iraq.

UPDATE: Billmon reminds us of the type of tough guy, know-everything rhetoric to which the Howard Deans of the world were subjected -- this from, appropriately enough, David Frum and Richard Perle in their crazed war-mongering book: "Now the pessimists are quivering because the remnants of the Baath Party have launched a guerrilla war against the allied forces in Iraq." Guys like Frum and Perle were way too smart and tough to do anything so weak and scared like "quiver" over something as meaningless and irrelevant as the Iraqi insurgency, which barely even existed.

And just compare Dean's pre-war predictions to those of serious military genius Paul Wolfowitz, testifying before Congress in February, 2003 -- the same time Dean gave his speech quoted above:

In his testimony, Mr. Wolfowitz ticked off several reasons why he believed a much smaller coalition peacekeeping force than General Shinseki envisioned would be sufficient to police and rebuild postwar Iraq. He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo. He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force that "stayed as long as necessary but left as soon as possible," but would oppose a long-term occupation force. And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it. "I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction," Mr. Wolfowitz said.

And then there's Peter Beinart, who, despite being wrong about virtually everything with Iraq, continues to run around lecturing those who were right about how dumb, frivolous and unprincipled they are when it comes to foreign policy. It's almost like being completely wrong is some sort of badge of intellectual and moral honor, while being right is a sign of "unseriousness."

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