Ends and Means

Jacob Levy has an interesting TNR piece entitled, “End All,” in which he discusses the notion that the Bush administration intentionally declined to kill Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the war for political reasons. While he doesn’t offer much in the way of useful information on that point, he offers an interesting larger thesis:

[A] broader problem in how Bush officials evaluate policy options: They seem unable to distinguish between means and ends, much less to prioritize appropriately between the two. . . . The Iraq war–if understood as part of the war on terrorism, which is how the administration wants it to be understood–was a means. It was a means toward breaking the pernicious status quo ante in the Middle East; toward pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia and gaining some freedom of maneuver with respect to the Saudis; toward building a democratic and civil state in the Arab Middle East that could energize liberal reform elsewhere and provide an alternative to the corrupt authoritarianism and Islamist totalitarianism that predominates in the region. It was also a means toward ensuring that the links between Saddam Hussein and semi-secular anti-Israel terrorists wouldn’t later expand into a further entanglement between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 doesn’t mean that the Iraq war had nothing to do with the war on terrorism. But the former was an indirect front in the latter. By contrast, Zarqawi, his Arab-Afghani fighters, the preexisting Ansar, and their preparations to use poison in terrorist attacks–these are direct threats. Leaving them alone for so long that they had time to get away in order to shore up support for an indirect front gets things backward.

The repeated refrain that Saddam was not in bed with Islamist terrorists gets tiresome. Among the “semi-secular anti-Israel terrorists” with whom Saddam had a longstanding, major relationship was HAMAS. Further, even Arafat’s Fatah wing of the PLO, which began as semi-secular movement in the 1960s, began morphing into an Islamist one in the early 1980s and was fully there by the early 1990s. Saddam, Arafat, and many other major players in the Middle East have openly courted and exploited Islamist terrorist groups for two decades now. Further, the ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, while less substantial than with HAMAS and other groups with an intermediate objective of destroying Israel, were deep and well-established from the time bin Laden was in Sudan, repeated contrary assertions notwithstanding.

Now, certainly, one can argue about prioritization. The governments of Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and especially Iran are/were more substantial supporters of these groups than Saddam. The rationale for going after Saddam rather than those regimes was manifold, but had to do with his repeated history of defying international convention and refusing to abide by his treaty obligations. We had been in a decade-long war with Saddam, imposing onerous economic sanctions on his people to no effect on the regime while having his anti-aircraft batteries shoot at our pilots patroling UN-mandated no-fly zones on a regular basis. Further, all the other states had shown signs that they could reform on their own accord while all indications were that Saddam would be around for years and then pass power on to his vicious sons.

If the administration intentionally passed on opportunities to take out Zarqawi–which they deny and for which there is little evidence–then it was almost certainly a blunder. My preference would have been massive military strikes on all known terrorist camps worldwide starting no later than September 12, 2001. Why they didn’t do that is beyond me. It can’t have much to do with the desire to invade Iraq, though, as there’s no reason it would have mattered. Saddam’s harboring of Zarqawi would have been just as much a rationale for regime change after we’d bombed the facility as before.

Levy goes on:

Troop levels in Iraq were kept artificially low, not for reasons related to the actual task at hand, but in order to prove a general point about American military might.

What is the evidence for this? The point about military might was indeed proven during the 21 days it took to affect regime change. But the proponents of the Revolution in Military Affairs school don’t hold that small, technologically advanced forces are the way to conduct stability operations. The much more plausible explanations for the small force were: 1) we grossly underestimated the size of the insurgency and, especially, the flood of foreign jihadists who we’d have to fight and 2) we don’t have that many more troops to send.

Reconstruction has been badly shortchanged in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the former out of a desire to save money and manpower for the Iraq war, and the latter in part out of a desire to declare the mission to be accomplished in time for the U.S. presidential election.

Again, where’s the evidence for this? With respect to Afghanistan, “reconstruction” seems rather a misnomer; one can’t “reconstruct” unless there was prior construction. In Iraq, much of the money got tied up in bureaucratic niggling over contract bidding. Not to mention that it’s hard to build an entire infrastructure when terrorists are constantly bombing the facilities under construction and killing the workers.

Abu Ghraib happened when the short-term imperative to capture Saddam Hussein was allowed precedence over the long-term objective of undoing anti-western, anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

Lynndie England was putting panties on people’s heads so that they’d turn in Saddam? That’s the first I’ve heard of that. The, “Yeah, but it led to Saddam’s capture” defense would be pretty compelling–I’m surprised her attorneys haven’t mentioned it.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.