Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War”

imagesCAI6BD5TI am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK

I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the 10th anniversary of Iraq. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.

Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident.



But Bob’s right to make the far more important point about what we do “if we knew then what we know now.” I’m not as sure as he is that there was ever a “neo-con theory of the war,” which I think grants too much coherence to Bush’s advisors. But he zeroes in on the key question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war?

After reading the various pieces here and thinking about Bob’s iterations of the discussion, here’s what I really think about Bob’s question on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War:
I think it’s too soon.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean it’s “too soon” to start sorting out the damage. Actually, the sooner we do that, the better. There’s a lot to learn from the war, and some of those lessons – especially about planning, dysfunctional civil-military relations, the dangers of script-writing an invasion, and the hazards of half-baked notions about “military transformation” – are already clear and should be incorporated into our thinking about national security.

I also don’t mean “too soon” in terms of drawing historical lessons – although I think it’s too soon for that, as well. I don’t think we know, really, anything about the long-term outcome of the war and its effect on either the Middle East or the world. That whole exercise, in which people who should know better confidently explain “What It All Means,” is pure nonsense. (Sadly, I said a lot of dumb things at the time, too. Guilty.)

IR scholars don’t need to be reminded that wars have unforeseeable consequences that can take a long, long time to coalesce. Seriously: imagine talking about the outcome of the Korean War a decade after its end. Truman left office with an approval rating measured in scientific notation. We replaced him with a four-star general after a national flirtation with Douglas MacArthur, whom history should revile more than it does. By 1963, “counter-insurgency” and “limited war” are all the rage. And really, it’s not like we’ll end up staying on the Korean peninsula for another fifty years or anything…

Or imagine reassessing Vietnam in 1985, ten years after the fall of Saigon. The United States is only just back on its feet after a crushing recession and a surge in Soviet power in the late 1970s. Who could deny that Vietnam was a miserable failure, a distraction and a foolish waste of resources? After all, the whole thing was really just a nationalist struggle that we misinterpreted as a communist coalition war, wasn’t it?

Now fast-forward after twenty years, to 1995. Now, the Soviet Union…wait, there isn’t a Soviet Union. Revelations from Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi are just beginning to tell us an ugly story, one that involves words like “domino” and “theory” that no one would have taken seriously even twenty years earlier. Books like Michael Lind’s volume start appearing, in which Vietnam is called the Cold War’s “Dunkirk,” and the shouting starts all over again and hasn’t stopped since.

Let’s also admit there’s a dishonesty in all these “was it worth it?” discussions. There’s no adequate calculus for the measure of a human life; no one should look a grieving parent in the eye and say these wars, any of them, were worth it.

But again, none of this is why I think it’s too soon to talk about the war.

The real reason it’s “too soon” is that many American liberals and American academics (not always the same group, I grant) still cannot think rationally about the war because they still cannot let go of their desire for revenge on George W. Bush.

Sadly, this obsession with Bush really has far less to do with the war per se than with an overall burning hatred harbored by intellectuals for the 43rd president. So while I commend Bob for his calmness and his attempt to find some kind of path to a rational discussion here, I think that there still aren’t many people who are willing to think about this beyond their emotional reactions to Bush. (I can think of the exceptions, like NDU’s Joe Collins and his sobering 2008 report, and count them on one or two hands.)

Just look at some of the stuff that’s been published on the occasion of the anniversary by Bush’s critics, and you’ll see what I mean. All of it is aimed not so much at a consideration of Bob’s question – especially whether there was a good reason to go to war – but more at a furious attempt to hang everyone involved., for example, claimed to have hacked Bush’s personal email and invited people to “wish George Bush a Happy Iraq War Day.” The usual suspects – let’s just use Michael Moore, because he’s predictable – claimed that Bush basically got away with “murder,” and should be in jail.

But even people with intelligence and wisdom lose their perspective when talking about Bush and his coterie. Consider Andy Bacevich’s recent piece in Harper’s, where he taunts Paul Wolfowitz about writing a memoir. The piece is one of Bacevich’s best: there are a few people out there whose writing not only inspires me, but also provokes my envy at their skill. Andy is one of them.
That skill, however, doesn’t hide the fact that Bacevich doesn’t really want to have a discussion about the war. He wants Paul Wolfowitz – and pretty much everyone else involved in the war – to go before the American people, fall on their knees, and beg for mercy:

To be sure, whatever you might choose to say, you’ll be vilified, as Robert McNamara was vilifed when he broke his long silence and admitted that he’d been “wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam. But help us learn the lessons of Iraq so that we might extract from it something of value in return for all the sacrifices made there.

Forgive me for saying so, but you owe it to your country.

Give it a shot.

Well. Who wouldn’t be inspired to write an honest and introspective book after that warning, which amounts to a demand not for a memoir, but for a confession? It’s like Brian Dennehy’s line in the classic movie Silverado, when he tells a captured man not to worry: “We’re going to give you a fair trial, and then a first-class hangin’.”

I’ve singled out Bacevich’s piece, paradoxically, because it’s good. It’s a great read. But the tone is pure acid – as are so many of the other “analyses” of the war.

This isn’t the place to go into why liberals hate Bush so much. That they do, and that they will violate even basic norms of intellectual inquiry when discussing his presidency, is beyond dispute. My colleague Steve Knott has written a devastating book whose title says it all: Rush to Judgment. Knott documented how presidential historians essentially discarded any scholarly standards in trying to assess the Bush presidency even before it was over.

More recently, Steve did a piece in the Wall Street Journal pointing out that there was a time when almost everyone on the planet agreed that there were WMD in Iraq. (He also tells a great story about how someone in the Clinton administration, likely Madeleine Albright, wanted to engineer a military crisis with Iraq. How soon we forget.) Steve tells me that he has gotten hate mail for that piece like he’s never seen before. He’s a little surprised. I’m not.

My own theory is that intellectuals hated Bush not for what he did, but for who he was. Specifically, they hated him because he didn’t care about them. It’s important to remember that many people espouse politics as a form of self-actualization: they choose political positions based on what they think those positions say about themselves to others: “I support Obamacare because I love the poor, and that makes me a good person, and certainly a better person than you,” or “I hate gay marriage because Jesus loves me more than you and I’m going to Heaven.” Sanctimony is always the dread companion of political conviction.

Bush, in going to war, clearly didn’t care what a group of professors wanted, or what they said in a New York Times full-page ad. That whole thing, in fact, reminded me of a story I heard about Jesse Helms, which I could swear was printed somewhere back in the ‘90s, so maybe it’s not apocryphal. The short version is that some staffer came in all in a lather because the Times had, as usual, dumped on Helms, and the kid wanted to write a rebuttal. Helms said: “Well, son, that’s just fine, and you go ahead and do that, but I have to tell you: I don’t read the New York Times. And nobody I know reads the New York Times.”

If you want to piss off the New York Times and the people who adore it, that’s the quickest way to do it, because it says to them the one thing they cannot bear: You did not matter in this decision. And until those psychic wounds heal, a lot of people are going to carry just too much baggage into this discussion.

Still, Bob asked a real question, so at the end here, I’ll answer it.

I supported the war, just as I supported the 1991 war. (I drafted Senator John Heinz’s floor statement explaining his vote in that one.) I supported regime change in Iraq as early as 1994. Like most people, I thought we had done our job after kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. I underestimated his staying power, and I thought soon after the end of that first war that we had any number of reasons to go back to war, including Saddam’s plot to kill the first President Bush, his attempt to exterminate the Marsh Arabs, and his repeated violations of the UN cease-fire resolution.

Nonetheless, we screwed up the execution beyond belief. I have spent ten years in classrooms with many of the men and women who saw it first-hand, some of whom paid dearly for the arrogance of Rumsfeld and others. I am continually stunned by what I hear, and I can only agree with Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who often said: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right. What I we didn’t understand was that we were going to go through all 500.”

That doesn’t mean I think the war was immoral, criminal, or based on lies. I think lives, American, Allied, and Iraqi, were recklessly thrown away, just as they were in the horrendous island-hopping campaign in the Pacific in World War II, as they were in the push to the Chinese border in Korea, as they were every day in Vietnam.

But unlike a lot of my colleagues, I don’t think I know what the war “means” just yet. And I’m not ready to convene any kangaroo courts: not for Bush, not for his advisors, not for the media, not for the academy, nor for anyone else.

At least not yet.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War”

  1. I enjoy your writing and your perspective, on some things you and I would agree and on many disagree but I believe it would be an honest disagreement. I’m a nobody (these days-the fbi and tricky dick nixon didn’t think so when I spoke truth to the power about Vietnam-yes I was there, USMC Sgt), but I said before the start of the Iraq war, there are no WMD’s and so did most people with more than 2 working brain cells. Cheney/bush et al lied and destroyed America. Keep GitMo open for those that really belong there.


    • Mr. Beverly: While it turned out that there were no WMD in Iraq, but no major intelligence agencies in the West or even in most of the Middle East dissented from the U.S. and British view on that issue. Even Bill Clinton called in to the Larry King show to defend Bush on that one point. It seems easy now to assume that they weren’t there, but as Steve Knott reminded us in his op-ed, there was a time before the war that nearly everyone — including John Kerry, who later ran against Bush — agreed that Saddam had WMD, or at least had not accounted for the ones we know he had. There’s a difference between lying and making a mistake, and the “Bush lied” trope is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about in my comments on Bob’s posts. We’re not going to get far in thinking about the war if “Bush lied” short-circuits any kind of more thoughtful analysis.


    • Robert you are a class act. I like the manner in which you expressed your disagreement. We don’t see much of this anymore.


  2. There is abundant evidence that the Bush administration squeezed the intelligence agencies to produce desired results and suppressed a very great deal of dissent in ties agencies, where, at the time, skepticism was high.

    Interesting that two thirds of this article amounts to complaints about how mean liberals are to president Bush. What an interesting choice of focus.


    • That’s an interesting take on what I said — and what Knott wrote about — considering that it was Tenet’s CIA that assured Bush that it was, in Tenet’s memorable phrase, a “slam dunk” that Iraq had WMD. I’m also not sure that Bush strong-armed the British, French, and other Western intelligence agencies, none of whom were dissenting (and in the UK case, were making stronger case than Bush was making).

      My point, exactly, is that many liberals and many academics cannot think clearly about the Gulf War because they are obsessed with Bush. If that’s the “focus” you’ve noted, then I’m pleased that you understood the post.


  3. “I reject Bob’s exploration of the ‘culpability’ of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason.”

    If I might examine this not as an IR specialist but from a more philosophical perspective, you might judge morality from a consequentialist position (what are the consequences of an action) or a non-consequentialist one (motives themselves matter). If you feel that what IR people did was irrelevant because it didn’t matter, that’s fine (though you affect more than people in Washington). I happen to think the latter, that whether people in Washington listen or not, having relatively more knowledge and perspective and acceding to the war makes one morally culpable.

    I am arguing as a point on a scale as IR people are human, but saying that being ignored excuses one’s conduct isn’t justified, to make a point. I do agree that there is often a sort of sneering intellectual condescension for President Bush which wasn’t helpful in building bridges toward being listened to. How many of us felt sorry for the man when images of his private hobby art were stolen, shown, and mocked! I do not, though, think that all academics are or were involved in such a witch hunt; surely some simply judge Iraq negatively without personal condemnations of its leaders, who may not have been fully aware of how they let slip the dogs of war?


    • I’m not saying being ignored excuses being wrong, but rather that it’s not productive to think too hard about “culpability,” because “culpability” implies causation, and I don’t there was any.


  4. Professors Kelly and Nichols, I would like to thank the both of you for undertaking this exercise. You have both endured some personal attacks which comes with the territory but please don’t ever quit pushing the boundaries. Professor Nichols, maybe you could invite Dr. Kelly to guest lecture at US Naval War College. A little off the subject but I do have a different viewpoint on the Island Hopping Campaign than you. I disagree that the US could have taken the fight to mainland Japan from the beginning. The logistics weren’t there to say the least.

    I also always enjoy reading keneckert’s contributions, always thoughtful, intellectually sound and well composed.


  5. Finally, I am of the sentiment that we won’t get real objective (I would state that Dr. Kelly was very objective, while Dr. Nichols’ exposition was a principled explanation based on his inside knowledge) discussions from ‘all sides’ on this war until many years from now. Note my emphasis on ‘all sides’.


      • Ditto! This used to be called “reasoned debate,” but there’s not a lot of it out there anymore, so I’m going to pat Bob and myself on our collective backs for trying to show that reasonable people can have real, and sharp, disagreements, without going nuts.


      • I pat you both on your backs! Bravo! We need more ‘reasoned debate’. I will support and contribute to reasoned debates whenever I can.


  6. Pingback: No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Look up “results based thinking.” You never judge a decision on the outcome. If the future is so unknowable, that would argue in favor of inaction.


  8. Pingback: The Iraq War after Twenty Years: There was a Neocon Theory of the War, but It was Packed with Tricky Assumptions and Demanded Excellent Execution. So yeah, Let’s Never Do that Again | Robert E Kelly

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