Rice Signals the Cost of Deception
Why did the United States invade Iraq? “The United States thought it was time to deal with Saddam Hussein,” said Secretary Rice, because he was “continuing to build weapons of mass destruction programs” and the economic sanctions regime was “brutal to the Iraqi people.” Thus the administration decided to invade Iraq when it did because the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the suffering of the Iraqi people somehow made the situation untenable. What made the situation untenable at that particular moment and not earlier is never explained.
What makes these comments by Secretary Rice worthy of attention is that while most of her words are carefully chosen, others appear unintentionally revealing. Note first that she says “the United States thought” rather than “the administration thought.” That is exactly the sort of verbal imprecision employed when there is blame to spread around. Contrast that with the verbal precision used when she attaches the word “programs” to the end of the phrase “build weapons of mass destruction.” We know that Baghdad never had any nuclear or biological weapons and that it was disarmed of its chemical weapons and the capacity to manufacture them under the supervision of the United Nations before the invasion began. The search for evidence of chemical weapons in the first year of the occupation produced nothing, which is why administration officials stopped talking about finding any chemical weapons or chemical weapons plants and started using the weasel word “programs.” Virtually any paper-shuffling activity of the Iraqi government could be deemed a program of sorts.
The proposition that the administration invaded Iraq because of humanitarian concern for the suffering of the Iraqi people under the economic sanctions regime is patent nonsense. Had the administration been so inclined it could have used its immense influence with the United Nations to ease or eliminate the sanctions. The administration didn’t do that because its foreign policy priority was regime change in Baghdad, not the welfare of the Iraqi people.
What’s more, the administration had another opportunity to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people after the war by establishing a competent and honest occupation government. Instead it created the Coalition Provisional Authority, a body so incompetent and corrupt that the resulting alienation of the Iraqi population appears almost deliberate.
If it fails to account for the facts, Secretary Rice’s explanation for the war is at least less embarrassing than some of the explanations offered by other administration officials. Missing are the allegations that Saddam Hussein’s government ever sponsored al-Qaeda—Rice appears content to allow Vice President Dick Cheney to own that particular canard. Nor did she try to evade the question with the “in for a penny, in for a pound” sunk costs argument that President George W. Bush finds so very convincing. Instead she explains the war as a response to circumstances in Iraq that compelled the administration to act.
Circumstances had everything to do with the decision, of course, but they weren’t the ones in Iraq. What is now clear from the historical record is that some administration officials began to talk up an invasion of Iraq in a September 15-16, 2001 meeting at Camp David. Secretary Rice was one of the group of senior foreign policy makers at that meeting who were distressed by the possibility that the United States would become bogged down in combat in Afghanistan fighting al-Qaeda and might be unable to exploit the post-September 11 patriotic rage to launch an invasion of Iraq. The only circumstances driving the decision for war were the opportunity presented by the public opinion environment and the obsession of the neo-conservative cabal in the White House and the Department of Defense with unseating Saddam Hussein. (Remember that when the decision was made the future Secretary Rice was still National Security Advisor Rice and wouldn’t claim the Department of State for the neo-conservatives until 2004.)
Lest we think that Secretary Rice isn’t paying a price for repeating diplomatic nonsense, consider the historical analogy she drew between contemporary Iraq and post-Second World War Germany. According to Secretary Rice, the United States didn’t go to war with Iraq to democratize it any more than the United States went to war with Germany to democratize it. That much is true. However her next comments not only butcher the analogy but also reflect anxiety about responsibility: “You defeated Nazi Germany because it was a threat to the region. You defeated Saddam Hussein because he was a threat to the region.” Neither statement is historically accurate. Nazi Germany was a direct threat to the United States, not just to its European neighbors, while Baathist Iraq was a threat only to its own population. Beyond the factual inaccuracy that makes the parallel ridiculous, Secretary Rice’s use of “you” rather than “we” as the actor who defeats the named enemy is revealing. The words express a desire to put emotional distance between herself and her share of the moral responsibility for the war. Repeating rank nonsense when everyone knows it to be rank nonsense seems to be taking its toll.
John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2005 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
This story was published on October 1, 2005.