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Shifting Goalposts

February 16th, 2005 · 15 Comments

The attitude expressed in this column seems to be surprisingly common:

The success of the [Iraqi] elections poses a major intellectual-moral-political problem for people in this city. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.[…] Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush, despite his annoying manner and his administration’s awful hubris and dissembling and incompetence concerning Iraq, just might–might, possibly–have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.

Huh? On what fucking planet? No, seriously, was anyone else awake when the case for this war was being made back in 2002? Does anyone have the impression that a case consisting of the argument that it was worth going to war so Iraqis could have a nice democracy and purple fingers would’ve been greeted with anything but incredulous laughter? The debate over the wisdom of this war was over months ago. The neocons lost, badly. That wouldn’t change if Iraq became a Middle Eastern Switzerland tomorrow. It wasn’t a good enough reason to go to war when it was a vague possibility, it’s not good enough now that it’s a vague possibility we’ve moved a few steps toward, and it won’t be good enough if it becomes a reality.

Tags: War



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 yarbles // Feb 16, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    My un-sophisticated opionion: If we pump enough oil out of there to cover this campaign, and we bring another country into the democratic fold, wasn’t it worth it, especially if they thank us for it in the end? I mean, we may be A-holes, but sometimes the big kids want to play a game, so get off the court, kiddies. While the non-superpowers might resent it for some time, the truth is they can’t wait until they are big someday so they can behave the same way.
    Sometimes being the big kid is all the justification you need.

  • 2 joe o // Feb 16, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    Although it was a mistake for us to invade and occupy Iraq, now that we have invaded and occupied Iraq, democratic elections are a good thing. But, it is not like GWB 2005 would tell GWB 2002 to invade Iraq. It was a mistake.

  • 3 John O // Feb 17, 2005 at 11:42 am

    Hey Julian – you made the front page over at Kos with this one – “Middle Eastern Switzerland” – I like that one…will they have chocolate too?

    Oh, and you comin up to NYC anytime soon? I think I missed you the last time you were around…

    And commenter Yarbles, um, I hate to tell you this, but, no matter how much oil Iraq pumps for the next 100 years, or until it runs out (whichever is sooner), we will never “cover this campaign” – in fact, we will never see one fucking thin dime. Unless by “we” you mean oil-services companies. Man, why can’t “we” actually mean oil-services companies? Then this dick-swinging “big kids game” would have actually gotten “us” rich, instead of bankrupt, bloody, and hated.

  • 4 Robert Green // Feb 17, 2005 at 11:43 am

    so yarbles, you’re saying that we are going to pump 200 billion dollars worth of oil out of iraq? to do such a thing would bankrupt iraq further, ruin their economy, and cause a devastating war to get even worse. “the big kids want to play a game” is as stupid a phrase as your idea warrants. this level of discourse, or indeed of concept, is risible. it’s hard to have honest debate with morons.

  • 5 fyodor // Feb 17, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    200 billion dollars of oil wouldn’t be enough, unless we incur no costs in the process. We need 200 billion dollars of oil profit, and we need it all to go into the US treasury….

  • 6 KevinNYC // Feb 17, 2005 at 12:40 pm

    Yarbles, we are sill a long way off on the democracy front. Before you can have a democracy you need to have a state. There is a reason why democracy appeared in the late 1700’s and not in 1320. If we leave Iraq right now, it will be a failed state and probably fall into civil war. The CIA has identified Iraq as the #1 new breeding ground for terrorists. This was not the case in 2003. Only 5,000 troops of the new Iraqi army are equipped and trained well enough to exist on there own. Over a year ago a US officer, (a general I believe) started to believe we lost this war. His reasoning? The most imporant road in the country runs from the airport to Baghdad. It’s about 15 miles. We weren’t in control of it then. Today it’s still insecure. If we can’t control one of the most important roads in the country, then we can’t control most of the other places we need to. All of the roads out of Baghdad today are controlled by insurgents/terrorists. No Western reporters can travel them, I doubt the Army would send a jeep of soldiers alone on them.

    This war has been an example of the limits of a even a superpower. Rumsfeld and Cheney and Wolfowitz convinced Bush that by flexing America might we would be able to reshape the world, quickly and cheaply. Well the world gets to react as well. Rumsfeld thought by August 2003 we would have 30,000 troops in Iraq. (He actually planned for that.) Wolfowitz told us that Iraq could pay for the reconstruction with its oil money. (Unlike Rumsfeld’s plan, I suspect Wolfowitz must have known this was delusional.) Today in Iraq you have to wait online for ten hours or more to get gasoline and it’s equally hard to find kerosene which most Iraqi’s use for heat and coooking.

    In your metaphor about playing a game, being the bigger kids is not enough. It’s more like the little kids were getting bullied by some big kids and we chased the big kids off the court and then we took pickaxes to the cout and ripped it up. Being bigger kids it was easy to rip it up. But’s it’s been very hard to build a new court, our plans aren’t working, it’s costing us tons of money and the little kids are fighting each other on who gets to control the court. They are also upset that they haven’t got to play much basketball since we tore the court up.

    After America’s failure in Vietnam, the military searched for ways to avoid a similar disaster. Bush and company totally threw those methods away when it came to Iraq. Remember in vietnam we put a government in. It collapsed two years after we left. In Aghanistan, the Russians installed an Afghan government, it failed too.

    The elections themselves are a great illustration of the limits of a superpower because Bush did not want them or plan for them originally. In 2003 when Gen Garner wanted to hold elections (if only local ones) and turn the place over to Iraqis, Bush removed him and installed Bremer and an occupation government. It was Sistani who forced elections. The bargain was I will the the Shiites to support the Americans, but the American’s have to set up elections. Sistani’s one concession to Bush, was Bush demanded that the elections be held in January after the US election. Now that the Shiites look to dominate the government will the act like the Shiites in Iran? It could be one of the war’s great ironies.

    Big numbers of people braving death threats to vote and the 260 attacks by the insurgents not have much effect overall is indeed a great day. But we haven’t solved anything yet, let alone justified this war. Iraq still hasn’t elected a leader yet and we are still going to have to find a way to keep those who were elected from being assisinated.

  • 7 Dinsdale Pirahna // Feb 17, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    So, Yarbles, why don’t you be a “big kid” and go visit your local Marine Corps recruiter so you can go play too?

  • 8 Chuck // Feb 17, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    This is about the worst case of goalpost shifting imaginable. I know because, pre-war, I was in favor of invasion.

    So I remember the argument pretty well: “We cannot wait for the ‘smoking gun’ that appears in the form of a mushroom cloud.” “I will not watch as threats gather.”

    George W. Bush scared the shit out of me. When administration liberal Colin Powell made the case before the UN, I was convinced.

    Of course Saddam was moving quickly towards acquiring weapons! And he must be stopped, I argued, because we cannot be assured that he can be contained once he goes nuclear. (Others thought he could be contained.)

    Today, GWB et. al. don’t mention WMD. Because there are none. Woops.

    But to pretend that we went there so we could export the glories of democracy is just–what’s the word?–a lie.

    Look, given where we are today, a democratic regime would be nice. (Although, you know what, I would take a secure state of any sort.)

    But I literally do not understand how the Bushies can claim that it’s all going according to plan without collapsing on the floor in fits of spastic, hysterical laughter.

    I know that we all have “confirmation bias”–we want to believe that we were right all along–but this is ridiculous.

  • 9 Luka Yovetich // Feb 17, 2005 at 2:59 pm


    I agree, basically. But I have a question for you (or anybody).

    Clearly, our information about WMD in Iraq was incorrect. So, in some sense, it was a mistake to go in. But I wonder if we didn’t have good (or best) reason to go into Iraq given our epistemic position back in 2002-3.

    I remember thinking that back before the war pretty much everybody believed that Iraq had WMD. I also remember thinking that there were two main disagreements. The first was whether or not Saddam was likely enough to pass WMD to AQ (or some similar group) to justify going in. The second was about whether or not going in was the best way to get the WMD.

    I imagine you might think that my take on what the sitation was is wrong. Can you tell me what you think is wrong about it?


  • 10 Alan Tomlinson // Feb 17, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    For what it’s worth, the chances of Iran and Iraq unifying on any substantial level are pretty slim (outside of bad novels). While majorities in both countries are Shia, Iran is a very different culture with an entirely different language than Iraq. Check out Juan Cole if you want more information on this.

    That aside, nice post.


    Alan Tomlinson

  • 11 KevinNYC // Feb 17, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    Clearly, our information about WMD in Iraq was incorrect. So, in some sense, it was a mistake to go in.
    Also we should have known it was incorrect by early 2003. The UN Inspectors were on the ground and they were finding zilch. We gave the UN hundreds of sites to inspect. (Remember Rumsfeld, “We know where they are.”) They were all bone dry. That should have given a serious president pause. Powell’s UN speech started being discredited within days. David Kay knew within days of his inspections, we were wrong. He supported the illusion for months, but he knew we never find anything and that there was nothing there.

    But I wonder if we didn’t have good (or best) reason to go into Iraq given our epistemic position back in 2002-3.
    What was our epistemic position in 2002-3? How would you define it? Whatever it was in 2002, by the time we decided to invade in 2003 it was vastly different. A second issue any reason for invading Iraq (and there are a bunch) were never told to the America people. We were told that Iraq represented a direct and growing threat. Any of the other reasons (deposing Saddam, introducing democracy, cheap oil) were just suppossed to be extra benefits to this action we absolutely had to take. If Bush had told people, we need to invade Iraq to create a democracy because it’s a bad neighgorhood and it will be an example to the rest of the region, he would have been laughed at. What soldier’s family would have supported that. We are going to send out troops to find for an experiment about installing democracy at the point of gun. Would Americans have been willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on that? Would they have thought it was a dumb idea, considering the real terrorist threat.

    The idea of Saddam giving Al Qaeda nukes or any other weapon is a fantasy of feverish neocon minds. If you remember Osama villified Saddam pretty often and offered to fight the infidel Saddam to keep him out of the “Land of the Two Mosques” (Saudi Arabia) during the first Gulf War. The idea of Osama=Saddam played on the ignorance of America about the rest of the world and it played on the woundedness we felt after 9/11. We felt we weren’t done kicking Arab/Muslim ass. People didn’t care to question if we were going after the right Muslims/Arabs. They just didn’t care.

    I personally don’t give Bush the benefit of the doubt of making honest mistakes. Two many honest mistakes would have to have been made and all in the direction that pointed to invading Iraq. Regime Change in Iraq was a dream of the Bush II crowd since the mid 90’s. 9/11 was the excuse they used to act on it. Remember that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz argued we should invade Iraq on 9/12 and not Afghanistan. I cannot think of an honest reason for that. Osama attacks us and our repsonse is to go after Saddam. It just doesn’t make sense.

    The reality is we started a war we didn’t need to, a war of choice that threatens to bog us down for several more years, that has killed nearly 1500 Americas, that has stretched our military and Nation Guard until the seams are breaking, a war where our best chance for an endgame seems to be installing a Shiite government that will be close to Iran and a war where the worst case is still possible two years later.
    If the debates in 2002 was honest and where we actually discussed the best options for National Security and foreign policy, America would be much stronger than it is now. Saying Saddam threatened us with a mushroom cloud cut off those debates and focused them solely on Iraq. The opportunity costs of this war are gigantic. If we had sent the manpower to Afghanistan we sent to Iraq, we might have been able to actually lay siege to Al Qaeda instead of letting it slip away into Pakistan. If we had taken the goodwill of the world and the global attention to terrorism and focused that on Al Qaeda and other jihadist Islamist groups, we may been able to really cripple them. Instead we tried to convince people Iran, Iraq and North Korea had a political alliance. We will pay for this blundering for decades.

  • 12 KevinNYC // Feb 17, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    Alan, if we were talking about all of Iraq, I might agree with you. However if we are talking about the Shiites of Iraq who will dominate the government, that is a different story. They are closely aligned with Iran. Iran is suspected of giving lots of money to Shiite political parties. When Saddam was deposed, the Shiites in Iraq started to welcome Iranian pilgrims back to the holy sites. (Saddam had stopped this). The man who most the greatest force behind the Iraqi elections, Ayatollah Sistani is himself an Iranian citizen and not even able to vote in Iraq. I learned most of that from reading Juan Cole. Cole just this week posted this:

    “Shiites Take Absolute Majority in Parliament
    Iran Scores Victory in the Iraqi Elections”

    “Robin Wright of the Washington Post points out that an electoral victory of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, both of them close to Tehran, is not what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Neoconservatives had been going for with this Iraq adventure. The United Iraqi Alliance is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric who lived over 2 decades in exile in Iran. I point out that the likely coalition partner of the United Iraqi Alliance is the Kurdistan Alliance, led by Jalal Talabani, who is himself very close to Tehran. So there are likely to be warm Baghdad-Tehran relations.”

    Cole also points out that Saddam repressing the Shiites in the 90’s radicalized them and has led to an upswing in “Khomeinist ideas” among poor Shiites. There’s a lot more history here.


    If we are talking about all of Iraqis and their relationship with Iran, then it’s a different story, it’s also why the insurgency is mostly Sunni and it highlights the danger of a Shiite vs Sunni vs Kurd civil war erupting.

  • 13 Jon Koppenhoefer // Feb 18, 2005 at 5:10 am

    It’s bitterly amusing to hear Bush rationalize his invasion of Iraq with post hoc ‘facts’.

    Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while, my grandmother used to say. And Bush is surely a blind pig desperately hunting for acorns in Iraq.

    The upshot of all this will be simple: Bush lied to everyone about his motives for invading, Congress bought the bullshit, and Americans trusted their government–once more–when they should know better.

    The White House paraded over two dozen excuses in the public before settling on the one that seems to hold the attention of the largest faction: ‘we invaded Iraq to establish the first Western-style democracy in the Middle East.’

    It is a lie from top to bottom, inside and out, but don’t let that stop you from telling it, Mr. Bush. It never has before, and it never will in the future.

  • 14 Luka Yovetich // Feb 19, 2005 at 10:02 pm


    Thanks for the response. I guess all that I’m interested in are specific reasons for thinking that at the time of invasion we did not have good reason to think that Iraq had WMD. And I’m also looking for compelling evidence that we had, at the time of invasion, best reason to think that Saddam would not work with OBL.

    If I remember correctly, most countries (even those that opposed the invasion) thought that Saddam probably had WMD at the time of the invasion. It was the Saddam-OBL relationship that people were more justifianly skeptical of.

    Does that sound wrong to you (or anyone else that might respond)?

  • 15 KCinDC // Feb 21, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    We’ve certainly turned the corner now!