Blackguards or Fools? A Fifth Anniversary Retrospective

The fifth anniversary of President Bush’s declaration of the end of major combat operations in Iraq before the “Mission Accomplished” banner on board theUSS Abraham Lincoln passed this past Thursday with appropriate observance: none. Trapped as the country is in the seemingly endless, infinitely expensive and debilitating Iraq experience a half decade after it was supposed to be over, one can only shake his or her head in disbelief. How did we get into this mess?

All the predictions made at the time (and chronicled in What After Iraq?–WAI) have been proven to be palpably false, and especially those that projected a short, decisive, and inexpensive operation. Remember when it was prophecied that the war would be essentially over in less than six months (that U.S. combat troops would have left 129 days after the invasion)? That prediction sounds reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm exhorting his troops in 1914 that they would be home before the first leaves of Autumn fell. And then there was the cost: no more than $50 billion, with Iraqi oil revenues picking up the rest of the tab. By now, Iraqi democracy presumably would be blooming like flowers in a desert oasis.

Five years later, it is worthwhile ruminating how people could have made such egregiously wrong predictions. As argued in WAI, most of what has happened was predictable ans predicted, but those who made and endorsed the decisions chose not to listen. Why not?

The title of this entry suggests one perspective: that the decisionmakers were either blackguards or fools. If they were blackguards (scoundrels), that would suggest they knew and understood the probable–as opposed to stated–consequences of the war but acted anyway. Their motivations could have been either willful arrogance, purposeful deception, or an overriding belief in the messianic virtue of the endavor that made it necessary quite apart from the costs. If they were scoundrels, they may have simply believed that their superior grasp of the situation was sufficient that any means, including knowing prevarication, were justifiable to further their beliefs in necessary outcomes. If anyone would seem a stereotype for this possible explanation, it would be Vice President Cheney, with Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle forming his Greek chorus.

The other possibility was that those who made the decision were simply ignorant of what they were doing, and especially of its ramifications. The White House, of course, can be a terribly insular, insulated place, and the voices of dissent simply may never have permeated into the Oval Office (whose resident, of course, is notorious for not tolerating dissent). Could it be that good advice simply never reached key decision makers, or that those who endorsed the decisions (the Congress, for instance) simply acted out of a foolish blindnessto the facts? The President himself certainly has showed a resilient ignorance of Iraq over time, and his lack of intellectual curiosity is legendary. Advisors like Paul Wolfowitz and some of his fellow neocons have been described as being brilliant but not wise true believers who could easily have ignored the truth.

There is, of course, plenty of blame to be apportioned for deciding to go into Iraq and acquiescing in the decision. Part of the postwar “lessons learned” exercise will almost certainly center on why decision makers decided what they did, and why the followers followed, just as was done after Vietnam. Hopefully, as the blackguards and fools are sorted out, there will be a more effective accounting of what can be done to keep either group on the sidelines in the future. But don’t hold your breath.   

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One Response to “Blackguards or Fools? A Fifth Anniversary Retrospective”

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