Why I Dislike the "Bush Lied About Iraq" Formulation (And Its Not Because I Want to Defend GWB)

I really don't like the meme that Bush lied about Iraq (on WMD's, possession of yellow cake uranium, whatever).  Here is why:  the implication is that if we just had smarter, more honest politicians, all of our interventionist foreign policy would work great.  But beyond the fact that we never have smarter and more honest politicians, this meme prevents us from learning the right lesson from the Iraq war.

If I were a candidate in the debate asked to comment on Trump's "Bush lied" comment, I would say this:

While politicians lie all the time, I think it is entirely possible that the Bush administration honestly believed Saddam had WMD's at the time of the Iraq war.  In fact, it appears that as a minimum, Hussein was bluffing like hell to make the world think he had such weapons.  But the issue of whether it was a lie or not is all a distraction.  The real issue for me is that we have no idea what we are doing when we intervene in these nations.  Typically in the rush of political sound-bites, we oversimplify ancient, five-sided conflicts as black and white, and even our most well-intentioned efforts to eliminate certain problems (such as Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi) tend to result in unanticipated consequences that might be many times as problematic as the original issues.  In Iraq, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya -- we had hundreds of people in and out of government who act like they know it all but in fact we as a county had no idea what we were doing.  And we simply can't know.

The lesson from the Iraq War is not that our foreign policy would be perfect if only we purge liars from the government (and good luck with that).  The lesson from the Iraq War is that we are never going to have a sensible foreign policy until we adopt some humility -- a lot of humility -- about our ability to understand other countries and manipulate them by force.  Is this really what you expect out of Donald Trump?  More humility?  While there is still a role for America's strength in the world, we need to set a much higher bar for when we use that strength.


Postscript:  They say that a converted Christian is more passionate that those who have been Christian all their lives.  I will confess that I am a convert to foreign policy humility.  I grew up in a Texas conservative Republican family, though I shed a lot of the social conservative baggage, as well as any team allegiance to the Republicans, decades ago.  I did hold on to sort of neo-Conservative forceful foreign policy, though.  I am embarrassed to say that I was a participant in my generation's August madness**, getting all rah-rah about the Iraq invasion.  At least I admit it, unlike a number of other folks *cough* Hillary and Trump *cough* who try to whitewash history.  I will use a famous quote here from Robespierre, though in the end he did not follow his own advice:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.


** There are surprisingly few good online sources I can find discussing the August Madness.  It refers to the public celebrations that occurred in the first month of World War I in nearly every combatant country.  The beginning of the war was met by a surprising amount of enthusiasm, even from groups (e.g. the Socialists) who were expected to actively oppose a general war.  Growing nationalism combined with a certain strain of 19th century romanticism and even a certain amount of progressive social Darwinism all came to a head to create general (though not universal) enthusiasm for the war.


  1. August:

    I dropped the pro-war stuff when I finally realized we don't achieve what's supposed to be the objective. Perhaps we are achieving the secret objective- perhaps someone actually wants destabilization, chaos, and more war, but ostensibly we were supposed to achieve the opposite.

  2. Tanuki Man:

    550 tons of yellowcake in Iraq: http://tinyurl.com/h2sncjg

  3. Jim Collins:

    I've heard a good case made that Sadam thought that he had WMD's too. Something along the lines that some of his Generals and a few European companies were scamming him out of millions of dollars while promising that they were developing WMDs.

  4. Maximum Liberty:

    You might be surprised at how much Ted Cruz agrees with you on that point. I saw a video of him excoriating both the Bush and Obama administrations for hubris in the middle east. From where he sits in the party, you'd expect a standard neo-conservative line. You get something closer to an old-style conservative, more willing to tolerate the bad guy we know over the unknown future.

  5. ErikTheRed:

    An interesting correlation (with suggestions of causation) has been brought up with the rise of Prussian-style public education in the US and Great Britain and the tendency for a more aggressive / violent form of nationalism. I don't recall where the quote came from, but somebody had said that in only five or six years in Britain the notion of soldiering went from being a decent professional occupation to being a matter of duty - and, of course, this was right before WWI. Similar changes were noted in the US. It's no secret that this type of education was specifically intended to create soldiers and factory workers. It seems to be "working" from that perspective.

  6. ErikTheRed:

    Except on then days when he's wondering if he can make sand glow. Not sure how lobbing nukes is a more old-style conservative position (definitely a more old-style progressive position, though - the ends justify the means, amirite?).

    Or the days when he wants to carpet-bomb unspecified portions of the Middle East (just the ISIS-y parts would suggest a fairly horrifying number of civilian deaths).

    He frankly sounds like he's from the GOP wing that wants to escalate things from incompetent meddling and pointless massacre to outright genocide. I doubt Trump and most of his supporters would even blink at that suggestion. I certainly see plenty of "kill all the Muslims" on Facebook, and I'm sure it's not just the psychotics I have the misfortune to be related to or otherwise associated with.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Perhaps we are achieving the secret objective- perhaps someone actually wants destabilization, chaos, and more war"

    More likely no one in charge hand any idea how to achieve the objective, but no one was willing to admit it. Never underestimate the incompetence of government. Even if there was a secret objective, I would expect it to be something having no resemblance to the actual outcome.

  8. SamWah:

    Even the Clintons accepted the conventional wisdom and intelligence that said Saddam had them, until Bush said the same thing.

  9. Dan Wendlick:

    Iraqi foreign policy in the intra-war years was disjointed to the point of being nonsensical, but I believe the overarching theme was that Sadaam Hussein, and the Baath party more generally, wanted the US, Iran, and Israel to believe he retained a WMD capability as a strategic deterrent, while he wanted the remainder of the world to believe he did not as a justification for lifting sanctions. So the play was always to make sure the inspectors found nothing, but to also make sure there was enough uncertainty that the presence of WMDs could not be entirely ruled out.
    There is also the fact that one of the methods Hussein used to maintain control was to compartmentalize and pit various branches of the government against each other, to make sure that each of his lieutenants had a vested interest in checking the ambitions of his peers. It is very possible that even at the highest level of the Baath party regime, different people believed different things about what the WMD capability actually contained. Lieutenant A may have believed there was a nuclear capability but no biological program, Lieutenant B may have believed there was an Anthrax program but the nuclear program was a misdirection, and Lieutenant C may have been in charge of a chemical program that existed only on paper as he sent all of the funds to his Swiss bank account. When you collate the fragments of intelligence leaking out of ministries A, B, and C, the apparently prudent course was to believe that all of them exist.

  10. mesocyclone:

    The problem with Coyote's view is that sometimes an interventionist foreign policy is justified. Korea and Vietnam are clear examples.

    The real lessons are:

    1) war is a lot harder than it looks going in

    2) the left in the US will viciously destroy any sentiment for winning the war, causing the victory to be thrown away. In both Vietnam and Iraq, the US had actually achieved a pretty good end state ( if you're a foreign policy realist and not a purist who demands instant US democracy). In both cases, the Democrats threw away the very expensive victory after the fact.

    Specifically: in Vietnam, the US destroyed the Viet Cong in 1968. The Christmas Bombing of 1972, and the NVA's failed armored invasion the next year convinced the North that further fighting was futile - South Vietnam was not worth the trouble. It is quite clear that had the Democrat controlled Congress in 1974 not banned any further US assistance, the South would have been easily held and would probably have ended up like today's South Korea - a free, prosperous country and a bulwark against the real interventionists - the Communists. Even with the tragic outcome, the war may very well have allows Thailand and The Philippines to escape serious Communist intervention.

    In Iraq, the US also had achieved a stable end state. Al Qaeda in Iraq had been defeated, as had been the Iranian ruied Shiite terrorist militias. It is quite likely that a small force of US troops, ready to intervene when required, could have held onto those gains. Iraq would not have been a western paradise, but then South Korea took decades to move from dictatorship to democracy. When the Shia dominated government saw that Obama wasn't interested in protecting them, they turned to Iran. At this point, Iraq and Syria are more firmly in Iran's grasp than ever before, while ISIS, which emerged from the ashes of AQI, is messing up the world.

    Also, the non-interventionists fail to address the counter-factuals: what would have happened if we had left Saddam in power? Would the Middle East be a happy place? Realists might argue that the likely result would be another war between Iraq and Iran, which would benefit US interests if it didn't spread. But, just as likely, Saddam would indeed have armed terrorists with the over 2000 rounds of Sarin gas shells he had and that the US recovered. And, given his history, he would almost certainly have caused some sort of war that would possibly have had huge economic ramifications - such as destroying Saudi Arabia, or forcing Israel to respond with nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the craziness in the region.

  11. mesocyclone:

    We achieved it in Iraq and Vietnam, but only after the left had destroyed the political consensus necessary to sustain the wins. Also, we did achieve it in Korea - taking back the North was not an original war aim.

  12. mesocyclone:

    He mis-spoke on the carpet bombing and knows it - a rare slip for a master debater. He has since stated that he never meant that literally. It is obvious that he used "carpet bomb" as an inappropriate way of saying "more forceful response."

  13. mesocyclone:

    Saddam had WMD's. Unfortunately, Bush took bad advice and never made a big deal out of it. There were thousands of rounds of nerve and mustard gas, some of which are in the possession now of AQI and some of which were used to injure US troops. Never heard of it? Thank the main stream media. First they changed the WMD threat to massive stockpilse rather than the administration's concern about terrorist use of small quantities. Then they pretty well buried the reports of WMD's when they were found. The information is there, and most of it eventually (as late as this year) was published in the MSM, but none of it was emphasized or in any way used to combat the "Bush Lied, People Died" narrative.

  14. Peabody:

    He's had a few times to admit that he misspoke and instead tries to clarify that he supports the oxymoron of "targeted carpet bombings". At least the 3 or 4 times I've heard him asked he has just pivoted and didn't admit that the term "carpet bomb" wasn't right. My personal theory is that his ego won't allow him to say he misspoke.

  15. Douglas McKinnie:

    Being too young to have imbibed the vietnam-era meaning of "carpet-bomb", I understood from the context of his remarks that he meant something like Tedder's carpet -- implying that intensive close-air-support techniques (in absence of troops to support) might by themselves achieve strategic aims.

  16. sean2829:

    Sometimes I think people asked the wrong question about WMD's. While there was yellow cake in Iraq, the Israelis had made sure there would be no Iraqi nuclear program. I don't think they were even close to starting a program up and they would have had to start from scratch. On the other hand, I think most people also thought that Iraq had a chemical weapons program, particularly since they had employed these weapons a decade before. Was a chemical weapons program worth going to war over? I think not but here's where family political dynasties may have come into play. At the completion of Desert Storm (and after his term in office had ended), George HW Bush went to Kuwait to formally receive thanks from that nation. Prior to his arrival, there was an assassination plot against George H.W. Bush uncovered and thwarted. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1000 This made George W. Bush's personal animosity towards the Iraqi dictator different than any other world leader and likely colored (clouded) the decision making. I would suggest that it also makes the baggage of political family dynasties a dangerous liability.

  17. Titan28:

    Mesocyclone, Great post. I expect if we had men like Coyote running the show back in, say, 1940 or so, we'd all of us be speaking German. Coyote, as per libertarian ahistorical typicality, ignores the status quo ante in Iraq: no fly zones, the flooding in of Iranian destabilizing influence, the demonstrations about the murder of children, Saddam's butchery, the UN resolutions Saddam ignored. Which is not to say going in was right. I was never happy with it, but I accepted the reasoning behind it. Even now I can't say the reasoning was bad, no matter how botched the result--and botched it is. The world may not be a happy place when America intervenes somewhere. But now that we have Obama, and we have subtracted ourselves from the equation, how's that working out? Coyote? You got the world you want? America can be ponderous and obtuse. No question. But w/o American leadership, the world is decidedly worse off.

  18. mesocyclone:

    Saddam told his interrogators that he kept up the pretense in order to deter Iran. Of courses, there were actual WMD's found in Iraq, but not in the number necessary for deterrence, but plenty more than enough for enormous terrorist attacks.

  19. Daniel Barger:

    The "did Saddam have WMD's" question is utter and complete bullshit.
    We KNOW BEYOND A DOUBT he had them because HE USED THEM....
    on his own people. Hussein killed THOUSANDS of ethnic Iraqi's using
    chemical weapons. This fact is beyond question. ANYONE who says
    that the Bush administration lied about Iraqi WMD's is an abject moron
    or a politically motivated liar. The issue of whether or not we should have
    invaded Iraq is complicated, subjective and may never be answered to
    everyone's satisfaction. But there is NO DOUBT that Hussein had WMD's
    and little doubt he was pursuing more weapons including nuclear devices.

  20. GoneWithTheWind:

    550 tons of yellowcake was found in Iraq. For months in the buildup to war France, Germany and Russia used the UN to stonewall the invasion because France and Germany built the WMD facilities (I'm sure they have plausible deniability and they were building labs or some other faciltiy). Russia dismantled the biological facilities they built there and for months constant flights of cargo planes moved the evidence back to Russia. We all saw this on TV. During all this time there was a constant stream of trucks running from Saddams wharehouses to the Bakaa valley in syria. We all saw it on TV. Even prior to Bush's election every politicians, every spy agency, everyone was convinced that Saddam had WMDs. Did he? It looks like he did but got rid of most of the evidence. Once that was done France, Germany and Russia agreed to go along with the invasion.

    Why doesn't our intervention work or our foreign policy work? Easy! Because we live in a human driven system and humans adjust and change to meet the changes they are faced with. You could have the best foreign policy in the world to deal with the bad guys and they will try to thwart it, that's what they do. Short of total annihilation of Iraq and then Iran and perhaps Syria nothing is going to fix it all.

    Where Bush was wrong in my opinion was trying to rebuild and fix Iraq. We should have destroyed their military, killed Saddam and installed a strongman who would do what we wanted him to. But that isn't how we do things. We prefer to make believe everyone wants peace love and understanding.

  21. Dan Wendlick:

    The problem with that is that it does not explain the similar buildup to hostilities in 1860 prior to the American Civil War. Prior to the meat-grinders of Shiloh and Antietam, there was a lot of enthusiasm about joining the military on both sides. Several states had to delay the formation of regiments because they could not afford to outfit as many as were forming (see Minnesota's Lumberjack Brigade). This was prior to Federal involvement in education, or indeed much resembling universal education as Bismarck envisioned.

  22. Craig Loehle:

    Foreign policy is not physics. Culture and politics are squishy and amorphous. A stable government is a difficult thing to achieve if you look at history. Countries and empires that seemed strong often fell apart for seemingly no reason. To try to impose a different political system on a country...good luck with that. So the Middle East is a Wicked Problem in which there may be NO SOLUTIONS no matter how much money is spent or how clever we are. Another way of saying what Coyote said.

  23. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    When it comes to revisionist history, Soviets may come in a distant second to the Democrats and their allies in the media. First of all, every intelligence agency in the world had concluded that Saddam was continuing his pursuit of WMD. In fact, when Saddam invited journalists to tour certain facilities to show that he had no WMD there, they noticed inconsistencies in Saddam's presentation and concluded that something was up. Second, the Democrats insisted that they be allowed to vote in Congress to show their support of "invading" Iraq. And they did vote that way with the noteworthy exception of Dennis Kuinich. Third, the Democrat resolution listed three reasons to invade Iraq: (1) Saddam was causing instability in the Middle East, including mass murder of Iraqis. (2) Saddam was sponsoring terrorism -- and his payments to families of suicide bombers did stop after the invasion. (3) WMD. Fourth, Democrats had the same access to intelligence as Bush had and came to the same conclusion. Fifth, the situation in Iraq could not continue on the way it was. Saddam was abusing UN program to abuse his people further and consolidate his power. Moreover, the no-fly zone policy of the US could not be continued indefinitely and Saddam was using it to foster anger toward the US and gain sympathy for himself.

  24. mesaeconoguy:

    The problem with the “Bush Lied People Died” meme, used to argue we should not have invaded Iraq, is the failure of the opposition to that action to account for the significant cost of maintaining the status quo, prior to invasion.

    Nowhere in any analysis or counterargument I have seen is the cost of the extant no fly zone enforcement tallied or accounted for, nor is
    the overall program of containment, which required extensive troops stationed in adjacent countries on near continual alert.

    Had Bush done nothing, and simply “contained” Saddam, there still would have been a significant cost to that status quo, which may eventually have led to an armed conflict, in which case many of the same people would be asking the question “Why did Bush wait so long to invade?” We will never know.

  25. stan:

    We won the war. It turned out positive. The fact that Obama gave away the hard fought win does not mean it wasn't a win.

    [It would have been a lot simpler if we had simply faced up to the fact
    that Iran was funding and arming the opposition after Saddam was ousted
    and taken on Iran directly.]

    And we discovered Saddam's nuke program in Libya only because we got him. Excellent result.

  26. stan:

    Saddam's nuke program was in Libya. Gaddafi coughed it up only after we bagged Saddam.

  27. Noumenon72:

    "Saddam had chemical weapons in 1994" is not the same as "Saddam had an active chemical weapons program in 2004". No one doubts the former claim, but the latter is not true.

  28. kidmugsy:

    "in only five or six years in Britain the notion of soldiering went from being a decent professional occupation ...": traditionally in Britain it was hardly even that. The navy was respectable, but the army was for reprobates, hotheads, drunks and duds.

  29. jhp151:

    For Bush to have lied, he personally would have to know for a fact that Iraq did not have WMDs. For completeness, the WMD in question would have to be some sort of nuclear material as the US was not justifying the invasion based on the existence of chemical WMDs.

    "Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency and the CIA, testifies before Congress last August. In an interview with NPR, Hayden says the intelligence agencies, not the White House, were responsible for getting it wrong when they concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003."


  30. jhp151:

    Specific to Vietnam, there is a school of thought that places the existence of the war entirely at the feet of the French. After WWII the French attempted to maintain colonies in the area via some fairly unsavory methods. The US sided with the French over Ho Chi Minh ( a former US WWII ally) due to French threats regarding NATO and western Europe. It is possible that North Vietnam that might have avoided the move to communism had the US backed it against the French. This is suggested based on the fact that Vietnam fought a ground war against China after the US left.

  31. MJ:

    This is a great point. I don't think a lot of people realize how much more difficult a job this would be. At the time of invasion none of the Iraqi citizens knew what it was it like to live under a democratic form of government. Why would we assume that was what they wanted, especially with the country splintered as it is along religious and ethnic lines? Who is the "good guy" left to support after Saddam was toppled? Was there one? The more I look back on it, the more absurd the original mission seems.

  32. MJ:

    What is an "ethnic Iraqi"? Iraq is a country with arbitrary borders containing at least three religious and ethnic groups, and most members of one group do not view the others as fellow countrymen. It is not a nation-state. Hussein gassed the Kurds for exactly this reason. He didn't want them to join a coalition government as equal partners. He wanted to subjugate them and drive them from his land. This is big part of the reason why a post-war government there was likely to be unstable.

  33. MJ:

    My own theory is that he doesn't truly believe in this strategy, but has to falsify his preferences in order to satisfy the more aggressive, war-mongering Republican base in order to get the nomination. He isn't backtracking right now because he is afraid he will lose key support. If he does get the R nomination it will be interesting to see how far he can take this gambit while still trying to court more centrist voters. I think the citizenry in general is a bit more war-weary than most candidates seem willing to (publicly) admit.

  34. mesocyclone:

    Ho Chi Minh was an agent of Soviet internationalism throughout his career. He was educated and trained by Communists and was a Soviet agent before any of this. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party, and an employee of the Soviet Cominyern (their international subversion operation) in Moscow. He was a senior Comintern agent in Southeast Asia.

    There is no chance that he would found anything other than a Soviet aligned Communist state. He even betrayed nationalist leaders to the French and the Japanese, the same way Mao did (to the Japanese), in order to maintain Communist power. He was only a "US ally" in the sense that they had a common enemy for a time, the Japanese.

    Eisenhower was not at all fond of French colonialism, which is why the US didn't intervene militarily to defeat the Viet Minh.

    The war against China was started by China, well after it was no longer a Soviet ally. China invaded Vietnam to punish it for overthrowing the Maoist Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. All of this is tied into centuries old ethnic rivalry. The Vietnamese and the Khmer (Cambodians) never got along. No neighbor of China got along with them - note that Cambodia is not a neighbor, unlike Vietnam.

    The school of thought you are referring to came about as a result of both Communist propaganda and the general leftist bent of the US anti-war movement. Many gullible people were happy to believe that Ho wasn't really part of the international Communist movement, but rather a humble leader of a peasant revolt against US imperialism. Because of the way the draft worked during that time, a lot of these people stayed in graduate school and got PhD's because doing so would allow them to avoid conscription. Not surprisingly, these tended to be the folks who believe this nonsense. History departments today rarely have anyone who isn't on the left, and many are far on the left. As a result, there is little scholarship about the 20th Century worth reading since about 1975.

    I knew plenty of these folks. When I returned to university after my time in the military, I was amazed that it had been pretty much overrun by communist inspired idealists, led by some overt Communists (i.e. CPUSA members) and the far left SDS, along with less ideological but badly misinformed ordinary leftists.

  35. John Say:

    With respect to the "Bush lied" stuff there was a feedback loop that became evident shortly afterward.

    From the bottom of the intelligence community to the top, everyone knew the answer the president wanted them to find.
    So as Data climbed the intelligence latter slowly transforming to information for the president, at each rung it was spun just a bit more to favor the answer everyone knew the president expected until it reach the top.
    Pres. Bush was told by his advisers, what he wanted to hear.

    With respect to Gulf War II. I was and am very proud of the job our soldiers performed.

    But even as a part of me cheered our efforts to Topple Sadam, I was quite conscious of the fact that the Bush premptive war doctrine was both wrong and immoral.

    More recently it has been very appealing to send our military to topple Iran - and there is little doubt they could do so.
    And that just as with GW II there is a tremendous appeal.

    But it was wrong for us to invade Iraq, and wrong to invade Iran today. As it was wrong to step in, in Libya, and Syria.

    We have the right to destroy the govenrment of any nation that attacks us. We may have an obligation to do the same to any nation that does so to its neighbors. But we have no right to use force against another nation because of even its most despicable acts against its own people, or its threats against others.

    To those who claim their are no working libertarian governments - I would note that the relations of nations in the world to each other is Anarcho-capitalism in practice, and has been for all of human history.

  36. John Say:

    You can not inflict democracy on people

  37. John Say:

    One of my theories regarding Iraq's WMD program is that while it did not for the most part exist, the IRaqi's themselves were playing a dangerous game.

    Sadam desparately wanted WMD's. He spent billions trying to acheive that.
    But those below him wisely circumvented those efforts.
    That however created the incentive to hide their results from the UN.
    They could publicly deny having WMD programs, but they could not allow the UN to prove they did not, without having to face Sadam.

  38. John Say:

    Or we could have ended the No Fly zones.

    Ultimately we can not prevent a determined nation from acquiring WMDS.

    Are we prepared to start a war with every country that attempts to do so ?

    At some point you must accept that other nations are going to behave in ways we do not like.

    The only justifications for the use of force are defense of self and defense of others.
    There is no right to pre-emptive self defense.
    Iraq was immoral and the results disasterous.

  39. mesaeconoguy:

    No. None of the neighboring countries would have allowed that, and no international org has the capabilities to perform the same function. That is a hopelessly naïve outcome.

    Given Saddam’s past belligerent behavior, it was extremely likely he would have done something to either provoke another war outright, and may have had and used chem weapons. Then you have a scenario where everyone goes after Bush for not doing something while he had the chance.

    There absolutely is a right to preemptive self defense, though it should be used extremely sparingly, if at all (very problematic, yes). though it has been poorly exercised (this example being one).

    The Iraq invasion was the least bad of multiple very bad options.

    Hindsight makes everything easier, and has clouded your judgment.

  40. jdgalt:

    Mental Floss's series on WW1 goes into the motivations of the different participants in great detail.

    But it seems to me that a better parallel to today's wars in the Middle East would be the Thirty Years War (1618-48), the war that broke up the Holy Roman Empire. Initially a civil war about religion (and one prince's ambition), all three sides invited in outside countries as allies, and the war stopped being about Germany at all; it became about the allied countries' disputes with each other. Then none of the local factions could make peace, because if they tried their "allies" simply wouldn't come to the peace conference. Result: The empire lost 40% of its population to starvation and disease, broke up into hundreds of small states (and had several provinces grabbed away by its neighbors), and stayed that way for 200+ years.

    In the Middle East, though, we are one of those outside allies. So if we fight, it should be for some material gain. I don't think we need anything they have enough to justify staying, unless the war were to defend Israel. And so far, they seem capable of doing that for themselves.

    The real reason we're there is probably to prevent Assad from giving the Russians a navy base. But that's Europe's problem. Let Europe fight that war if they feel the need.

  41. jdgalt:

    I would argue that we did exactly that in Japan. But we have to have the will to stay until the job is finished, which means 50+ years of occupation. If we're not willing to commit to doing that, it's a waste of our troops' lives to fight the war at all, and this goes for all wars.

  42. jdgalt:

    The lesson I learn is that you have to plan the endgame. Since there was no "good guy" we should have planned to keep Iraq, probably permanently, but at least long enough to change their culture. Or don't fight them at all.

  43. John Say:

    Other countries can make their own choices. They do not control us. We do not control them.

    I did not offer an "outcome" so I could not have offered a "hopelessly naive outcome". I am not naive. The outcomes we have been getting have been pretty bad. What I suggest is different in that:
    it is moral. It does not pretend we can control outcomes.

    Extremely likely is not a justification for war.

    Do we do what is right ? or do we do what no one will go after us for ?
    Besides everyone went after Bush anyway.

    No there is not a right to preemptive self defense. That is complete nonsense. There is no sparingly, no problematic, no poorly exercised, it is just plane wrong.

    Shoot some homeless guy and see how far a claim that you did so preemptively because he was going to mug you works out in court.

    Preemptive self defense is no more than a claim that I can act with violence if I am scared.

  44. John Say:

    We do not have the right to occupy a nation for 50 years.
    The philipines is not our finest hour or a good example of anything.
    It is only not seen as a horrible stain because of how much worse the japanese and spanish were.

    The British have occupied other nations for centuries and still not successfully imposed good government on them.

    Yes, sometimes you defeat a nation in war and the result is a better government for that nation.
    But beyond our role in destroying the prior bad predecessor, "imposing" good government only works when the people of that country want good government.

    The bad behavior of others is no justification for bad behavior on our part.

    I am not making any excuses for ISIS or Iraq or Iran, or Libya, or ..
    nor trying to claim that muslim culture does not have serious problems.
    Only define what we may and may not do morally.
    The immorality of our enemies does not justify our own immoral acts.

    We may boycott, protest, sanction, ..... anything non-violent for whatever reason we choose.
    I do not think those things are effective. But we are still free to do them.

    We may use force in response to actual force.
    We may not do so because we are afraid.

    If we are justified in using force, we can destroy the military and government of the beligerant nation.
    Given we were justified in acting, we can leave whenever we please.
    Nations that use violence against other nations are responsible for rebuilding themselves.
    We are not. Nor can we.

    It is a delusion to believe that dumping billions of dollars into a nation will transform it.
    People and nations must change themselves.

  45. mesaeconoguy:

    Correct, other countries will make their own choices, and if those choices threaten us, we will take action. They do not operate in a vacuum.

    Your scenario, just leaving, was implausible. Your urge to simply ignore external threats is likewise impossible. The right to preemptive defense most definitely exists.

    I agree with you, however, that acting on every single perceived threat is also implausible.

    I’m convinced that a large portion of that part of the world is ungovernable.

    Hence, we, or our proxies, will always be there in some form.

  46. John Say:

    Our government is obligated to protect us from every plausible threat.
    Preparing to counter a potential threat is not the same as initiating force in fear.

    I am not suggesting ignoring threats, merely that we can not use force except in response to force.

    It is using force out of fear that is implausible - as well as immoral.

    There is no right to pre-emptive self defense.
    First rights belong to individuals not nations, and I can assure you there is no credible philosophy of rights that permits an individual to use force pre-emptively.
    The rights of nations are no more than the collective rights of their citizens.

    Just leaving is quite plausible. We took out Iraq in a few weeks, Afghanistan in much less.
    Our military is quite good at taking out other militaries and other govenrments.
    We have no real right to dictate what replaces the government we take out.
    But if we take out a government and leave, the message is we will be back if they do not figure out how to behave.

  47. John Say:

    It is not our job to govern the world.
    If some other region is ungovernable - so be it.
    So long as they do not export violence what they do internally is their own problem

  48. jdgalt:

    I have not advocated pre-emptive warfare. But once a country does launch a war of aggression against us or our allies, it's only common sense that we finish the job (meaning make sure the new regime in that country won't try again as soon as they can rebuild and re-arm). In other words, once we already have cause to fight a war, take advantage of that cause by putting the aggressor country in better hands (maybe even our own) so that we'll only have to fight them once.

    The first Gulf War and its aftermath (including two more wars so far) are a great example of what happens when we follow the UN's advice instead of mine.

  49. John Say:

    After is a more pragmatic than philosophical question.

    Throughout history there are very few examples of succesfully managing the "after".

    Destroying another nations government and military are tasks we have become fairly good at - whether justified or not.
    The "after" is one that we are disasterously bad at. That is an assessment, not a political or philosophical judgement.

    If there was compelling evidence that the US or any nation had the capacity to impose good government on a previously beleigerant nation I would be happy to consider that.
    But history has few examples of that working,

    I would love to see the mideast transformed into nations of freedom respecting constitutional republics. But I have no evidence that is happening or that we have a clue how to bring that about.
    It does happen - but when it does it has been driven internally not externally.
    The best we can do is serve as an example.

  50. John Say:

    The UN provides and invaluable function. It provides a forum for the nations of the world to wage verbal rather than real warfare. Beyond that is pointless.

    Regardless, the UN's failures do not make our unilateral actions look good in contrast.

    We are very good at destroying the governments and militaries of other nations.
    Our government is abysmal at nation building - nor is their evidence that other governments have done better in the past.

    I would suggest reading the Ugly american. It history thinly disguised as fiction,
    It demonstrates that the US has had a tremendous positive impact and influence on the world - but not through its government. Contrary to left wing nut memes the "ugly american" is a hero, not a villian. He represents our influence on other nations separate from our government.