McCain and Co. will tell you that the problem with the war in Iraq has been in its execution. The war was not the problem, just bad management. Yet, contra McCain, others insist that had we known then, what we know now, we would not have gone to war. But the fact is that many of us did know, or at least knew enough, and were angry and demoralized because there was nothing we could do to stop the war. Through poor judgment or political calculation (or both), our representatives in the House and Senate voted to authorize Bush’s war on October 11, 2002. Just five five months later, on March 18, 2003, the war began. And now, five years later, in some sort of bizarre parody of Churchill, we have McCain calling for victory and promising never to surrender. (Never surrender to what or to whom?)

At the time I wrote many drafts of op-ed pieces that I never bothered to polish or edit for publication. Quite frankly, I thought that they would do little, and just gave up on them. A correct assessment at the time. However, I now offer one from October 1st, 2002, exactly as it was written. Why? Because as many of us as possible now need to say, in as many ways as possible, “we told you so.” And that in this election, we are going use our own good judgment, and elect leaders who will end a war that should never have begun.

A word about the context for the piece: I was suspicious at the time about whether WMD’s existed. I certainly didn’t think that Iraq had nuclear weapons. But I wanted to see if I could frame (in relatively few words) obvious problems with a war scenario, even assuming the existence of WMD’s. The conceit of the piece was that by appealing to the self-interest of Republicans, we might be able to stop the war. (I hear you laughing and snickering). But as I note at the end, there were reasons to believe that it wouldn’t work, then or now.

“Daddy, what’s a Republican?”
October 1, 2002

We are all familiar with the Nasdaq Bubble of the 1990s, from which we learned how momentum has its own, well, momentum, until it all comes to a grinding halt. Yet the White House appears not to have learned this lesson. As the administration joyfully trades in patriotic slogans, and relishes the short term political gain that carrying the flag yields, another sort of bubble has arisen, a War Bubble. And just like those poor Wall Street traders who believed their own stories about the value of their shares, politicians caught within this new bubble do not realize that they are overvaluing a stock, Bush’s stock with the American people. These politicians are called Republicans, and they are on the verge of making one of the greatest miscalculations in American political history.

Generals, as the story goes, are often caught fighting the last war. In this case we have politicians who are managing not only to fight the last war, but who are confusing the seemingly uncomplicated aftermath of that war with the war to come. Mr. Bush and company believe that we can take out Iraq without much difficulty, just like the last time. They tell us that American casualties will be low, and shortly after the invasion a new day will dawn for Iraq. And when this day dawns the President will be the man of the hour. He will be the leader who finally got the job done. He will have finished off the worst tyrant since Hitler. His poll numbers will rise into the stratosphere and, unlike his dad’s, remain there for the next presidential election. And his coattails will be long indeed. But this outcome is a fantasy. Here is the reality, or at least something that more nearly approximates it.

Just as Bush’s team says, our military will make short work of Saddam’s forces. Within a week or two we will have secured most of the important military objectives, although not before Saddam has gassed and killed many of those who have opposed him (for example, the Kurds), turned weapons of mass destruction over to terrorist groups that will use them at their leisure, and blown up a number of oil fields. Our early military successes, however, will not end the war. Even after Hussein is killed or has fled, some Iraqi patriots will resist, and they will do so in major urban areas. There will be difficult urban warfare. Our soldiers will die and we will be tempted to level areas in some of Iraq’s major cities in order to get the job done. Civilians will die. Children will die. The puppet government that we install will be resented by large number of Iraqis and by Muslims throughout the world. There will be no shortage of volunteers for terrorist organizations, and for the foreseeable future they will have little need to recruit. The land that we now know as Iraq will be unstable for years to come. We will either have to remain in force or watch the region disintegrate. The whole business will clearly be expensive in both material and human terms.

President Bush and his team have sold and will continue to sell the war on Iraq by playing on the vulnerabilities that Americans have felt since that horrific day in September. The rhetoric has been carefully constructed to conflate and confuse. Fear has done its job. Fear is leading to war fever and to war. But some day soon Hussein will be gone. What then happens when the terrorists strike America and this strike turns out to be worse than the last one? Or maybe there won’t be a big strike, only a series of smaller strikes reminding us with each death and injury just how vulnerable we are. (Perhaps we will even discover that the weapons being used against us were made available to terrorists after we attacked Iraq.) We are being promised a safer America after this war, but it will not feel safer. And even if Americans are currently saying that they do not believe that getting rid of Saddam will end terrorism, in their heart of hearts they are expecting that the effort will lead to a big pay off in terms of safety. This is, after all, how the war is being sold. They will be disappointed.

But not only will America not feel like a safer place after the war, it will feel like a much poorer one. Everyone knows that our economy has been on the skids. The collective wisdom appears to be that we cannot expect the Stock Market to rise significantly anytime in the near future. To this fragile economy a war in Iraq will add a nice piece of change, starting at around forty or fifty billion, to our budget deficit. And don’t expect much help from overseas in paying the tab. The arms that Mr. Bush twists to obtain support for his war will not extend themselves to dole out cold cash. It also appears that Afghanistan may end up costing more than we now expect, as will the campaign against terrorism. Yet in spite of their expense, all of these wars will not stimulate the economy in the manner of World War II. They simply aren’t big enough. But they certainly will be big enough to place an additional drag on the economy. For example, a war with Iraq will cause risk premiums to rise, which may push up interest rates. To take a specific industry, the increase in oil prices, along with a decline in air travel, might help to bury a number of already shaky airlines. (For a discussion of the war’s impact on the economy see, “Stiglitz: War Won’t Boost U.S. Economy,” a September 25, 2002 filing by Reuters in the New York Times. Joe Stiglitz is a Nobel-winning economist.) Further, we cannot depend on the consumer to bail the economy out, because consumer confidence will not readily recover in the age of Al Qaeda, higher oil prices, and continuing unrest in the Mid-East and around the world. It’s reasonable to presume that the economy will stagnate if not weaken for the foreseeable future. Add to this our continuing sense of vulnerability in spite of winning a war with Iraq, and there is little doubt that Bush will be looking mighty ineffective, inept, and weak before the next presidential election. There will be no coattails in 2004. There probably won’t even be a coat.

No series of arguments against the impending attack on Iraq has worked with the administration. Fear and dogmatism hold sway. So here is my extravagant hope. Bald self-interest will move the Republicans, because they will realize that if they don’t get off the hobbyhorse of war, they will lose and lose big in elections to come. But I’m certainly not counting on it. Bubbles are mighty powerful. Just look at your 401K.

 Poster from February 2003 (added for May 2008 posting)

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