Frank Rich: Why Bush went to war

I am seeing a lot of plugs for New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Great Story Ever Sold, which makes the argument that Bush went to war against Iraq because Karl Rove needed a “war president” for the midterm elections in 2002. This simple explanation is perhaps the most convincing I have heard, especially as plenty of other people — big business, the neo-cons — were ready to jump on the bandwagon. From Gary Kamiya’s review in Salon:

Far more compelling — and originally argued — is his insight into the real reason Bush went to war in Iraq. His answer to this endlessly debated question, and his related excursus on the personality of Bush himself, may be the single most lucid and convincing one I’ve ever read. Although it is almost painfully obvious, and wins the Occam’s Razor test of being the simplest, it is put forward considerably less often than more ideological theories — whether about controlling oil, supporting Israel, establishing American hegemony, or one-upping his father.

Perhaps this is because Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections. Yet Rich makes a powerful argument that that is the case.

Playing the key role, not surprisingly, is Karl Rove. “To track down Rove’s role, it’s necessary to flash back to January 2002,” Rich writes. The Afghanistan war had been a success. “In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November’s midterm elections.” Rove decided Bush needed to be a “war president.” The problem, however, was that Afghanistan was fading from American minds, Osama bin Laden had escaped, and the secret, unglamorous — and actually effective — approach America was taking to fighting terror wasn’t a political winner. “How do you run as a vainglorious ‘war president’ if the war looks as if it’s winding down and the number one evildoer has escaped?”

The answer: Wag the dog. Attack Iraq.

Now ideology comes in, along with the peculiar alliance of neocons and Cold War hawks that had been waiting for their chance. “Enter Scooter Libby, stage right.” As Rich explains, Libby, Cheney and Wolfowitz had wanted to attack Iraq for a long time, not to stop terrorism but for the familiar neocon reasons of remaking the Middle East and the familiar Cold War hawk reasons of trumpeting America’s might. “Here, ready and waiting on the shelf in-house, were the grounds for a grand new battle that would be showy, not secret, in its success — just the political Viagra that Rove needed for an election year.”

Obviously I’ll need to read the book to see what Rich’s argument really is, but this sounds very interesting indeed.

0 thoughts on “Frank Rich: Why Bush went to war”

  1. Frank Rich is usually deadly sharp, but this strikes me as just a bit too simple. Domestic electoral politics is no easier to tease out as a variable from the muddle of pressures and motivations that produce foreign policy than is a mythical “national interest.” You could probably trace just about any foreign policy decision to electoral politics in the US if you really tried, because of course foreign policy is important to the institution of the presidency, to appearing “presidential,” especially as the institution was shaped during the cold war. Still doesn’t mean electoral politics is the main driving force.

    I’d guess that most analysts of US foreign policy would see domestic politics as a permissive rather than independent causal variable for the Iraq war – Cheney et al had the war plan on ice for a while, and they figured post 9/11 was the best chance they were ever going to get to sell it domestically. And people bought it.

    I’d be curious to see how Rich treats the media angle and public discourse about the war, because he’s really much better at that than at some potted causal analysis.

  2. Well hopefully the book has a fuller explanation, but this one just seems to fit to me. I never figured Bush for a neo-con, so what was in it for him to make such a fuss over Iraq? This is a plausible answer, and an elegant one at that. But I’ll wait till I get my hands on the book.

  3. I’m irritated by commentators’ refusal to acknowledge the other economic reason for war–besides oil–which is to help what was then a foundering Haliburton, and to ensure that the US military-industrial complex will keep on chugging for years to come. Afghanistan and Iraq came at an excellent time for this, just when the point of sustaining a bloated and increasingly corrupt defense industry was starting to be questioned a bit more. The US hadn’t had a war in a decade at that point.

  4. The non-NeoCon Republicans, esp Cold War hawks, had been itching for a war in Iraq too, as the article mentions. Risk analysis people in DC who knew them well were asking “when is this war going to happen?” back in the summer of 2001. There are lots of old Cold Warriors in the administration, and they had Bush’s ear as much as the neocons did.

    Bush may not have been a NeoCon but presumably was predisposed to thinking about manifest destiny, etc given his evangelical orientation.

    BTW, the infamous Arab Mind book is showing up on the Amazon book ad sidebar…

  5. Issandr: “Well hopefully the book has a fuller explanation, but this one just seems to fit to me. I never figured Bush for a neo-con, so what was in it for him to make such a fuss over Iraq? This is a plausible answer”

    That argues as a selling point to Bush, but does not make it a prime reason of itself.

  6. I’ve always thought that the explanation was rather clear. I think even under a democratic president there would have been pressure to go to war against Iraq, although it may not have actually happened. Just as a preface, in the same position I wouldn’t have taken these actions, I’m just explaining the logic as I see it.

    The US saw sanctions against Iraq as a vitally important part of its dual containment strategy, against Iraq and Iran that evolved in the wake of the gulf war. The idea was to prevent both from becoming stronger regional powers to protect Israel, as well as to maintain stability in the region, and thus stable oil prices.

    However, containment was slipping on Iraq with international consensus building that the sanctions were unjust (I agree). In the muslim world this consensus had emerged long ago (see Marc Lynch’s book for a great account of this). Violations of the sanctions were also happening regularly (see oil for food program) and at the time, the CIA believed that even if Saddam didn’t have an active program, if sanctions were dropped he would reconstitute his old programs.

    Secondly, in the wake of 9/11, the worst thing to happen to a president would be to have a second major attack on US soil. That has to be any post-9/11 president’s top priority, however they perceive the best way of accomplishing that is.

    So basically, the administration saw a situation that was on its way towards giving a declared enemy of the united states (saddam) free reign to pursue a WMD program. Plus, Pakistan is busy selling nukes to dictators around this time, so who knows what could happen. In light of all this, what are your options?

    Basically you need to convince the international community that sanctions cannot be lifted as long as saddam is in power, and to enforce them vigorously, or you need to remove the source of the threat, because a WMD armed, sanction-less Saddam is not an acceptable option for US national security.

    Throw in some supporting factors like election pressure, getting revenge for your father, etc. and voila, decision to go to war.

  7. A very keen analysis Rashad. I’ll take your earlier note of caution about reading Rich’s book first, Issander, because on the face of it, such reductionism simply doesn’t fly.

  8. The review said: “…Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections…”

    I don’t think I’m so incredibly innocent (and I find mildly distasteful the comment about Americans en masse, knowing quite a few of who do not fit the type), but I don’t believe that any president would launch a war just to win an election.

    It’s certainly one of many factors, like I think SP said, anything an elected person here does will be at some point valuated by its percieved effect on reelection prospects. And for better or worse, that’s as true of war as anything. But it is a hard pill to swallow to think that they said: “sheee-it hoss, we’ll win this election no sweat if we just send a 150,000 (or whatever it was) troops into Iraq!” And I don’t like these people, and I voted against them twice, so it’s not like I’m biased pro Bush.

    Someone above mentioned Occam’s Razor — is starting any war really the simplest way to win re-election? Cos even as delusional as the Bush folk seem to be, and even given their lack of military experience, it is some stretch of the imagination for anyone to think staging a war is the simplest way to gain in the polls. And it’s not like Bush was doing so bad at the time that his admin was desperate for support, if I remember right…

    I don’t usually read Rich (I stick to my boy Friedman, who I know is so incredibly popular around here 😉 ), so I don’t personally know if he’s usually good or not, but if he or anyone is suggesting any president started a war simply because it upped his chance of re-election… well, all’s I’m sayin is: dude had better be really, REALLY convincing. I guess, Issandr, if you read it and like it, you will hopefully let us know?

  9. Dan – Tom Friedman, really?

    I doubt that Rich’s argument is that Bush started the war only because of this, but in a way this seems a more plausible reason than the neo-con or big oil ones for him and Rove personally. I was excited about this idea because it’s the first time I’ve heard articulated in this way, and maybe it’s without merit.

    Rashad, I’d don’t really buy the containment is failing reason because it wasn’t really on the table in late Clinton or early Bush period. Of course 9/11 might have provided the necessary justification, but in itself this wasn’t a credible threat.

    I think the general feeling in the comments that the war was carried out because of a mix of reasons is generally correct, but I am interested in what motivated Bush personally. We know what motivated Cheney and Wolfowitz. But Bush and Rove?

  10. So I thought about it a little more, and, I guess, a case that argues election politics entered irresponsibly into the decision making process could be made more plausible given how quick, clean, and easy Bush and his people thought Iraq II would be. I mean to say, if one argues they thought it would be such a discrete little conflict, with no downsides, few dead, and a cost covered mostly by Iraqi oil money, (which seems to be what they actually thought?), then one can have at least an easier time arguing that they did it to win an election, or that electoral politics held unseemly sway in their calculations.

    My prior comment was more a gut reaction against the idea that any president with a sober assessment of war and would take such action so lightly. Because the reviewer uses the term “major war”, and I’m not sure these people thought they were launching a major war, rather than a minor war with a major impact. A president would not launch a “major war” just to win elections. But a minor one? Well…… yeah, maybe.

  11. Electoral calculations, especially for the presidency (as opposed to Congress, where you can trace lobbying and who’s pressing for what policy based on which constituencies more easily), are probably less explicit and more woven into general expectations of What a President Should Do.

    Would a president gamble on a major war getting him re-elected? Sounds foolhardy, but Bush managed it, didn’t he? Presidents can get away with a lot if they frame it as a Grand Global Vision…but he wasn’t just playing to the Republican base with this one, polls through 2004 showed he had the support of a lot of Dem voters on foreign policy.

  12. I had classes with both Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross and they both noted the failing containment argument. Albright said that especially in late Clinton it was a regular topic at National Security Council meetings.

    I can easily imagine this getting played up by the neo-cons in breifings, and then Bush seizing on the idea. The main argument against this, I think is the fact that the administration itself has neglected to make this case. One would think that if it was motivating them, they might actually say something about it.

    I guess the problem is that they were too war eager, and if containment was really their goal then an aggressive inspections regime would have worked to satisfy that goal and thus negating any justification for war.

  13. I’d like to point out that the Iraq war started after the elections… actually, about four MONTHS after the elections. Unless Bush was getting retroactive votes after the bombing started, this theory is stillborn.

    Sabre-rattling as a technique to look tough, I can believe. But if that’s all the Republicans could come up with as an election strategy (“My fellow Americans, we sent troops halfway across the world to back UN inspectors! We made a member of the Axis of Evil promise to write a really big report!”) then the Dems would have won control of Congress in a walk.

  14. To all those who do not buy into Rich’s theory, perhaps“ rel=”nofollow”>this may help.

    And if you read French,“ rel=”nofollow”>this also.

    Also if you read through some of the transcripts of the AEI conferences at the time of Bush’s first campaign for the presidency, you will find that the “Iraq Campaign” has been long in the making (and Rove was not involved then). How and when he became involved would be a much more interesting question to explore, IMO, for only then will be understand Bush’s own involvement.

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