Sunday, March 24, 2013

The wrong lessons from Iraq

A lot of articles have appeared about the US invasion in Iraq and the faulty intelligence that justified that invasion. Yet I think they miss the point. The Bush administration did provide some false information - but that played only a marginal role in the invasion. What really counted was the hysterical culture in the Western - and specially US - foreign policy debate. And that culture is still there.

A good example is Obama's recent remark about chemical weapons in Syria. The Syrian government had accused the rebels of using chemical weapons and in reaction the rebels had accused the government of using them. The UN is investigating and until now there is no strong evidence for either accusation. That didn't stop Obama from - once again - saying that if Assad used chemical weapons the US would react.

On the surface this was just a repeat of the US policy that it would be unacceptable if Assad used chemical weapons. But that ignores the emotional tone of Obama's statement and the fact that he ignored the possibility that rebels had used chemical weapons. The results were clear: soon afterwards we saw a small wave of newspaper articles and statements by politicians asking for a more active intervention in Syria.

This was exactly what we saw with Iraq. There too we saw a steady stream of statements by Bush and others from his administration about the possibility that Saddam might have chemical weapons. They tended not to bring this as facts but rather to bring it as possibilities that were absolutely unacceptable. Then too we saw the newspapers and politicians picking up the emotional cues and asking for intervention: the Iraq intervention was approved by the US Congress with a wide majority. Those providing false information were members of this mob who went a bit farther then the others.

For a part this reflects the fact that both leaders have aggressive intentions: Obama wants regime change in Syria just as much as Bush wanted it in Iraq - he just tries to do it with less political costs. But for another part it reflects a lack of leadership: it is easier politically to claim Saddam has chemical weapons while he has none than to claim that he hasn't and be confronted later on with evidence that he has. Yet the former position creates a culture of mistrust that makes it almost impossible to live together peacefully on this planet.

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