In the debate over the Iraq war--a debate that started before, continued during, and still evolves as I write this now--the arguments are pretty simple: liberals (or progressives or Democrats) blame President Bush for the war, with a little sprinkling of former VP Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s lackeys/subordinates/henchmen; conservatives (or Republicans) somehow blame liberals for not supporting the military enough, or (now) argue that we won because we removed a dangerous dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Well, we didn’t win. (If you think we did win, it looked something like this. And you might as well stop reading this post: you won’t agree with anything else.)
America needs to figure out why. We need to hold our government accountable. At least, we need to find out why we screwed up so royally so we don’t do it again. (You know, like with Iran.)
Unfortunately, accountability means holding people accountable. That means blaming specific individuals. And I don’t like how we--American society/media/intelligentsia--go about doing that.
This ABC News article from 2007 captures the way most journalists and historians assign blame. We look for the one individual, or maybe group, and blame them. That’s why liberals blame Bush or Cheney, and conservatives blame liberals as a whole. The ABC article basically concludes that the conservative politicians caused the war.
As a history major, I sharpened my intellectual teeth on single cause explanations for events. That’s why in thirty years, I expect to read a history book blaming the Iraq war on President Bush. And maybe another one blaming it all on Cheney. And an Errol Morris documentary where Rumsfeld passes the blame onto everyone else. Meanwhile, conservative historians will fire back that we could have “won” the Iraq war if we simply had the right policies in place.
Those simple explanations just don’t cut it, though. Multiple actors--each making terrible decisions--caused the Iraq War fiasco. We can’t blame the Iraq war disaster on just President Bush. Or any single person. Or even just the executive branch. Instead, we need to spread around the blame.
I like to think of historical causes on a 0-100 point scale, assigning responsibility by percentage. The question is, “How much did any one individual factor contribute to the failure?” If I had to assign blame for Iraq, I would proportion it out something like this (readers can dispute the exact percentage, that’s not really the point):
Al Qaeda - 5%
Saddam Hussein - 5%
Paul Bremer - 10%
President Bush - 10%
VP Cheney - 10%
The Sec Def’s Office - 40%
Of course, this proportioning of blame could be spaced out for different time periods. We could assign blame for starting the war in the first place, then assign blame for conduct of the war and then assign blame for why the war just dragged on for so long. Either way, this is how I prefer to explain history, my own historiography if you will.
Careful readers will notice that my proportioning of blame doesn’t add up to 100%. That’s on purpose. While the politicians running the Bush administration do deserve the lion’s share of the blame, especially for starting the Iraq war in the first place, another gigantic group also deserves some heat. The group of people who advised the politicians. Who led the invasion. Who planned (or failed to plan) for a post-invasion Iraq.
That gigantic group of people has been so far historically immune to criticism. I’ll tackle them Wednesday.