Guesting at Volokh Conspiracy, Daniel Drezner tries to square the circle created by the arguments of Josh Marshall and Steven Den Beste, both of whom argue that the Administration played a game of misdirection to get us into the war. Marshall, who opposed the war, thinks this is an outrage. Den Beste, who supported the war, thinks it was justifiable.

Drezner, correctly I believe, argues that it is much more complex than this:

Marshall and Den Beste assert deception because they both assume a monocausal argument for why the U.S. went to war. The truth is much messier.

Quick, why did the Northern states fight the Civil War — to end slavery or to preserve the Union? Did Germany decide to enter World War I because of its fear of Britain’s existing power, its concern over Russia’s emerging power, or its reliance on a grand strategy that stressed offensive military operations? Did the U.S. fight Gulf War I to reverse the violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty, to prevent Saddam Hussein from potentially controlling 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves, to stop a dictator as evil as Hitler, or to protect “jobs, jobs, jobs”? Did the U.S. intervene in Bosnia to stop genocide, constrain Serbian expansionism, or preserve NATO’s credibility? Did the U.S. fight Gulf War II because of the administration’s concerns over Iraq’s violation of UN resolutions, fears that Saddam’s regime was killing or starving non-Sunni Iraqis, hopes to create a viable democratic Arab state, worries over Iraq’s WMD program, or beliefs that the containment strategy was no longer a viable option?

Scratch an honest historian or international relations scholar, and s/he will tell you that all of these answers have some validity. States often go to war for a melange of reasons that go beyond self-defense. Read either the relevant section of Bush’s State of the Union speech or his AEI speech from this February and you will see all of the reasons listed in the previous paragraph mentioned.

Kieran Healy, writing at Crooked Timber, is having none of this.

The cold eye of history will judge the war, the reasons for it and its ultimate success or failure. But we don’t live in the light of hindsight. We’re stuck here now, uncertain of the future but lucky enough to live in a political system where leaders are bound at least in principle to give us good reasons for their actions, especially when it comes to something like a war. The likes of Den Beste can put on their cowboy hats, assume they’re part of the in-crowd and confidently assert that the big picture, or the drift of history and geopolitics, or the situation in the long-run, is sufficient to overcome scruples about misleading the public. But one of the chief projects of conservative thought over the past fifty years has been to dismantle the idea that a leader, a social class, or a nation can confidently assume that History is on its side. It’s odd to see the conservatives themselves, of all people, now moving toward the view that the need to adhere to the telos of history trumps the notion of democratic accountability in day-to-day politics.

How can it be argued that Bush didn’t give good reasons for the war? The president gave numerous speeches, got the support of both Houses of Congress, and gained the support of a large international coalition. Again, from SOTU, Bush listed all of these factors: :

  • Saddam promised to give up WMD when he lost Gulf War I
  • International agencies found the presence/ability to produce:
    • 25,000 liters of anthrax
    • 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin
    • 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent
    • 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents
    • several mobile biological weapons labs. . .designed to produce germ warfare agents
    • an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb
  • Saddam refused to explain or account for any of this despite numerous UN resolutions and the threat of war
  • Saddam is intimidating and otherwise denying UN inspectors the ability to do their job
  • The threat of action by Saddam is NOT IMMINENT.
  • 9/11 showed the danger of waiting too late.
  • Saddam is has used WMD on his own people and continues to torture them
  • We’re coming to liberate the Iraqi people

Again, these factors were sufficient to gain him overwhelming support from Congress, which they passed a joint resolution supporting him right before the fall 2002 elections (296-133 in the House, 77-23 in the Senate). No serious person was arguing that Saddam didn’t have WMD capability; the question was always one of approach: could he be contained by a tough inspection regime, sanctions, or some other course short of war? The president decided that the risks were too great.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Daniel Drezner makes a hell of a point. Or should I say he did a hell of a job making it.

    But it does not matter. The people who opposed the liberation of the oppressed people of Iraq are still opposed it to.

    Not because they were against war or it was the wrong thing to do. Indeed, many of these poeple are now arguing that we should be in Liberia. They opposed it because it was Bush’s idea. Right after the Dems embarrassed themselves after the last midterm election, they announced openly that they were going to oppose Bush more and Iraq was one of the things they were going to oppose him on.

    IT IS PATHETIC AND SAD that a once great (or at least mediocre) party has now chosen as a political strategy to play politics while we have soldiers at war.

    To the administration and most Republicans this is about making the world a safer place. To Democratic leadership this is about the acquisition of power. And that is just is pathetic.


    And it is an unarguable point. After the election they said that they were going to do it to regain power. Now they are doing it. Don’t blame me for repeating their words.

  2. John says:

    Congrat’s knocking down the straw man. That crude drawing of the anti-war position works just like a voodoo doll.