Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thinking About War -- Before Starting One

March 20, 2013, 8:00 a.m.

Iraq: What Were We Thinking? We Weren't Thinking

This week marks the tenth anniversary of our ill-considered, ill-fated, unprovoked, unproductive, super-deadly, super-expensive, preemptive war of choice in Iraq.

Remember the lines from the Viet Nam War song, "War. What's it good for? Absolutely nothing"? (If not, click the link and read them.)

Unfortunately, the Iraq War was "good for" considerably more than "absolutely nothing." In addition to the hostility we created among Iraqis and throughout the Muslim world, thereby accelerating the recruitment efforts of al Qaeda, the destabilization of the Middle East, the tens of thousands of dead and disabled men, women and children, disrupted families and businesses, orphaned children, billions of property damage, and destruction of centuries old cultural artifacts from this "cradle of civilization," there is also the addition of some $2 trillion to our nation's mounting gift of debt to our grandchildren (after we've properly paid our wounded and surviving veterans for the rest of their lives). [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

Among all the regrets over which we should be grieving this week of remembrance, is that all of these consequences not only could have been predicted, they were predicted.

Although as Maritime Administrator I played some role with regard to sealift to Viet Nam, I claim no expertise in matters of war strategy. I have never been a member of the Staff to the Joints Chiefs of Staff, a member of the faculty of any of our war colleges, nor an author of any of "The Pentagon Papers."

My point is not that my early insights are evidence of my brilliance. Indeed, quite the opposite. My point, my question, is if these questions were so obvious to me, with no expertise in the strategy of war, or responsibility for launching an Iraq War of choice, why were they not even more obvious to those who had that expertise and responsibility? And if there were those within government who shared these concerns, as I assume there must have been, why were they rebuffed or overruled by their superiors?

Anyhow, here on this tenth anniversary, as we mourn their decision, is a republication of a column I wrote ten years ago:

Ten Questions for Bush Before War
Nicholas Johnson
The Daily Iowan, Guest Opinion
February 4, 2003, p. A6

As a university community we don’t just “support” or “oppose” the war in Iraq. We value data and reasoned analysis. We ask questions.

Put aside the nukes in North Korea. Put aside the emotionally charged arguments. Not that they’re irrelevant. But just consider these 10 questions you might want to ask your public officials, academic colleagues, any presidential candidates you happen upon – and yourself.

1. Al Qaeda is alive and well, just over the Afghanistan border and in 60 countries. Why start a new war before resolving the last? How is "homeland security" improved by diverting focus from Al Qaeda?

2. Global Muslim support is essential to a successful war on terrorism. Threatening war with Iraq increases Muslims’ hatred – and terrorists’ recruiting. What benefits from war in Iraq exceed the costs of increased terrorism here?

3. Iraq war or not, our arrogant, go-it-alone saber-rattling has squandered valuable post-9/11 global good will. Our worldwide economic, democratic, military and human rights efforts require allies. How does alienating them serve our national interest?

4. President Bush says Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction. The President may be wrong; but especially if he's right, why fail to heed the CIA's warning: Saddam's most likely to do so only if attacked?

5. The administration’s inherited budget surpluses have become deep deficits. War with Iraq adds billions to our grandchildren’s national debt. Why abandon our relatively low-cost policy of containment? Why now? And, if so, why not increase taxes to pay as we go?

6. The Administration’s policy of global military domination and preemptive wars reverses 200 years of American policy, violates international law, the UN Charter, NATO Treaty, and possibly the U.S. Constitution. China could use the theory to justify attacking Taiwan. How is national security improved by setting back 50 years of progress in international relations?

7. Once the dogs of war are unleashed, there’s no controlling where they go. If we let the dogs out, minimally we lose Middle East stability. Worst case, we start World War III. How does risking either serve our interests?

8. What’s “war” in a city? We can level Baghdad, as we did Dresden and Hiroshima. That’s lots of “collateral damage.” We can send in ground troops. But even a weakened Hitler was able to kill the 10,000 Russian soldiers who tried that strategy in Berlin. What military strategy makes a Baghdad war “winnable” – with acceptable levels of civilian and U.S. casualties?

9. Assume the improbable: a war that’s quick, cheap, decisive and contained. What then? Why will Saddam’s successor be better? How can he prevent civil war among Iraq’s factions, let alone Middle East chaos? Our man in Afghanistan is still under attack even in Kabul. Why will our man in Baghdad do better? What will it cost us to rebuild Iraq? Will we keep bases there forever? Or will we abandon Iraq for wars elsewhere – as we’ve done in Afghanistan?

10. Iraq sits atop the world’s second largest oil reserves. How much of this proposed war is about oil? How will U.S. occupation of Iraq affect the interests of U.S. oil companies -- and consumers? Which campaign contributors profit from this war?

Washington hasn’t, yet, provided satisfactory (to me) answers to these and other questions. Maybe we can find them in Iowa City.
As it happens, the lessons from this disaster go far beyond governmental decisions about war, and the consequences for Defense Department appropriations and their impact on our national debt.

"What were you thinking?" we sometimes wonder about (or ask) teenagers. Occasionally, we're even wise enough to put that question to ourselves. And the most honest response is often, as with our War in Iraq, "We weren't thinking."

Although the questions are different, decisions regarding our choice of career, college, spouse or partner, apartment or house, automobile, entrepreneurial business, exercise regime, hobbies and volunteer activity, and more, are also subject to a similar kind of rational, analytical thinking our government should have used before going to war in Iraq -- even if the consequences for getting it wrong are far greater from war than from our personal failures to think before acting.

The Small Business Administration reports that a full 50% of all new businesses fail sometime within five years. At least one of the reasons why, perhaps the most important reason, is the failure to take seriously the necessity of a "business plan" and the thinking that goes into it -- including the failure to use what the Small Business Administration makes available for free to all budding entrepreneurs as the step-by-step instructions for creating such a plan.


For my additional pre-war thinking in columns throughout 2002, see

Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3;

Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both);

Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4;

Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11;

and the March 2002 lecture, Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002.

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Anonymous said...

I think most younger Americans---born since the Vietnam War---thought all new wars would be short and safe like the Persian Gulf War. Clean wars fought with skud missles from a distance. So when we went into Iraq, we expected it to be quick and then we'd get out. Ha! That fantasy aside, Bush wanted to make up for his father not getting Saddam Hussein the first time. He wanted to win one for Pop. And of course, there was all that great oil, too. I doubt Bush even thought of people dying. I don't think he thought of much at all---he just jumped in. And Congress did, too.

Nick said...

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