Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, author of the infamous "Axis of Evil" claim in Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, has a column this morning announcing that "all of us who advocated for the [Iraq] war have had to do some reckoning". His column is an attempt to provide such a reckoning, and contains numerous revealing assertions.
He begins with this melodramatic decree, designed to make you sympathetic of the stressful and scary environment in which Bush officials were operating: "My youngest daughter was born in December 2001: a war baby." To justify this characterization, he says that "when my wife nursed little Beatrice in the middle of the night, she'd hear F-16s patrolling the Washington skies," and that "a few weeks before, a sniper had terrorized the Washington suburbs. Anthrax attacks had killed five people and infected 17 others. What would come next?" (In actuality, the anthrax attacks came from a US Army lab; the Washington sniper attacks were in 2002, not 2001, and were perpetrated by two Americans; and hearing some F-16s patrolling the sky is hardly the stuff of extreme war trauma, particularly when compared to what people in actual war zones regularly experience). Frum is right that the fear levels were extremely high in this time period, but that was due to a deliberate campaign orchestrated by the administration in which he served.
Frum's most interesting revelation comes from his discussion of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile whom many neocons intended to install as leader of that country after the US took over. Frum says that "the first time [he] met Ahmed Chalabi was a year or two before the war, in Christopher Hitchens's apartment". He then details the specific goals Chalabi and Dick Cheney discussed when planning the war:
"I was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those 'others' was Vice President Cheney, it didn't matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia."
Wars rarely have one clear and singular purpose, and the Iraq War in particular was driven by different agendas prioritized by different factions. To say it was fought exclusively due to oil is an oversimplification. But the fact that oil is a major factor in every Western military action in the Middle East is so self-evident that it's astonishing that it's even considered debatable, let alone some fringe and edgy idea.
Yet few claims were more stigmatized in the run-up to the Iraq War, and after, than the view that oil was a substantial factor. In 2006, George Bush instructed us that there was a "responsible" way to criticize the US war effort in Iraq, and an "irresponsible" way to do so, and he helpfully defined the boundaries:
"Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate - and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas.
"The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, nothing produced faster or more vicious attacks on war opponents than the claim that oil was playing a substantial role in the desire to invade. On February 23, 2003, then-Cogressman Dennis Kucinich appeared on Meet the Press and argued that oil was a primary reason for the US to want to invade Iraq, and in response, Richard Perle (Frum's co-author in their 2004 "An End to Evil") replied: "It is a lie, Congressman. It is an out and out lie." That exchange led the Washington Post's liberal columnist Richard Cohen to write this:
"'Liar' is a word rarely used in Washington . . . So it was particularly shocking, not to mention refreshing, to hear Richard Perle on Sunday call Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) a liar to his face . . .
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"Kucinich himself seemed only momentarily fazed by Perle's sharp right to his integrity and went on, indomitable demagogue that he seems to be, to maintain that the coming war with Iraq will be fought to control that nation's oil . . . How did this fool get on 'Meet the Press'?"
There are countless other examples of people having their reputations viciously maligned for suggesting that oil was a significant factor in the US and its allies wanting to invade Iraq.
In order to minimize the role he played in helping bring about this war, Frum writes:
"People often ask me whether I have regrets. It seems absurdly presumptuous to answer the question. I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me."
As Jonathan Schwarz replied: "Yeah, there's no way that somebody like Frum could have changed anything if he'd revealed Cheney's deep interest in Iraqi oil. Poor David was utterly powerless." At exactly the time that virtually all of official Washington was mocking and scorning anyone who suggested that oil was a significant factor in Washington's designs on Iraq, Cheney and Chalabi were spending "long hours" together, "contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq" as "an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia".
In a separate post, Schwarz documents that war advocates like Frum still can't tell basic truths about Iraq even as they adopt the posture of contemplation and remorse. In particular, Frum's claim that Saddam maintained a nuclear weapons program until 1996 is indisputably false. Unfortunately, Americans are quite good at regretting their past wars but quite poor at applying the lessons to newly proposed ones.
Talk about self-serving revisionism: to distance himself from neocon designs on Iraq, Frum claims that he "was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration". But, as Ruben Bolling just reminded me, Frum wrote a long and angry defense of Chalabi in 2004 at National Review, hailing him as "one of the very few genuine liberal democrats to be found at the head of any substantial political organization anywhere in the Arab world", and ended with this proclamation: "Compared to anybody [sic] other possible leader of Iraq – compared to just about every other political leader in the Arab world – the imperfect Ahmed Chalabi is nonetheless a James bleeping Madison." James bleeping Madison. Whatever attributes characterized David Frum back in 2003 and 2004, a skeptic of Ahmed Chalabi was not one of them, his present-day suggestions notwithstanding.