What were they thinking? Why did they do it?
Why did the president and other top U.S. officials tell the nation and the world, repeatedly and unequivocally, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when much of the intelligence, including a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, reflected significant doubts? What explains the yawning gap between the contradictory and inconclusive nature of the intelligence and the absolute certainty of official statements?
Did the administration unconsciously read the evidence selectively, according to its own preconceptions, and end up believing its own propaganda?
Or did it engage in deception to justify war? Say what you will about Bush administration hard-liners, these are not stupid people. So how could they think they would get away with it once the real story about the intelligence began filtering out?
Here is the best answer I have encountered:
``Imperial hubris made a sober decision even less likely -- the greatest democracy on Earth -- should not have to accept the unsavory compromises that lesser powers had to endure. In the glare of this hubris, the subtle distinctions of the intelligence reports disappeared. . . . The analysis of the U.S intervention . . . uncovers several abiding themes in U.S. foreign policy. First, there is a striking gap between intelligence and policy. Second, this gap can be sustained as long as the costs can be kept low; that is, the overwhelming power of the United States . . . often means that U.S. policy makers pay no price for sloppy and wrongheaded thinking. Finally, the fact that the costs were very low muted debate at home and made it possible to transform a power play based on fuzzy thinking into a noble deed.''
It's a neat analysis. The sheer military power of the United States ensured that the costs of the Iraq operation would be relatively low, at least in terms of what counts politically at home -- American lives. Thus debate has been muted despite the wide discrepancy between reality and the official story.
And Americans have kept right on supporting Bush, although most of them suspected that the stated reason for the Iraq war, weapons of mass destruction, was bogus. The shifting attention of the media from the elusive weapons of mass destruction to Saddam's crimes seems to be transforming a power play based on fuzzy thinking (or deceit) into a noble deed.
Yet the passage quoted is not about the Iraq war. It's about U.S. intervention in Zaire in 1964-65. It appears in a 2002 book by historian Piero Gleijeses on the conflict between the United States and Cuba in Africa. In Zaire, what was, in the view of the CIA, State Department and other Western intelligence analysts, a tribal rebellion became, through the lenses of Cold War Washington politics, a dire communist threat requiring urgent military action.
Zaire is not an isolated case. The distortion of intelligence to fit ideology and inflate a threat may be unprecedented in the case of Iraq by sheer audacity and by historical implications of the mendacity -- but not in its occurrence.
So perhaps the answer to the question of what they were thinking is this: They thought they could get away with it because it had been done before, and now the United States is more dominant, so why not?
And were they right, or is Iraq different? It's too early to tell.
The image of the United States internationally has suffered more because of the Iraq war than over Zaire or any other intervention. But the real key to the question of whether they get away with it will be the cost of the occupation of Iraq in terms of American lives, the health of the U.S. economy, the perception of mission success and, ultimately, votes.
Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder