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Enough Blame to Go Around: Proportioning Responsibility for the Iraq War

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.

four comments

For readers who may be like, hey, why an Iraq war post? Why this? Why now?

Three things: One, we don’t chase the news, and this is a debate we will/should be having as a nation for years to come. Two, we’re on the precipice of war with another nation; this debate is as important as ever. The group that Michael blames on Wednesday might help to lead us into the next war.

Finally, the larger issues will be dealt with throughout the week.

In your post you talk about blame, responsibility, accountability and historical causes. These are all related, but have different emphases. In replying to your post I’ll comment broadly, while trying to stay true to your aim of identifying things that will lessen the chances of similar mistakes being made in future.

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a fully considered response, so I’ll just put down some notes. Perhaps they may provide food for thought for your subsequent posts.

So firstly I’ll blame Richard Nixon. Why? Because he repealed the draft. And he did it to reduce public opposition to the Vietnam War. But he also reduced public opposition to all war. Public opposition is important, because it is one of the prime factors that prevents politicians committing to stupid or unnecessary wars. Going to war should be a last resort, once all other options are exhausted. It is not for nothing that the Founding Fathers were against the concept of a standing army. My radical solution for reducing the risk of fighting stupid wars: reduce the size of the armed forces and reintroduce the draft. The ability to fight two wars at one time would be retained, but the draft would have to be invoked to fight the second war.

Secondly I’ll blame the “good men” who did nothing, or did not do enough. Perhaps unfairly, one of the “good men” I blame is Colin Powell – I feel he could and should have done more to prevent the second Iraq war.

Thirdly I’ll blame the leaders of America’s European allies, who kowtowed to American desires for war. As a Brit, I am particularly angry about Tony Blair’s readiness to commit Britain to war. I feel that had America’s allies more strongly opposed the second Iraq war, the war could have been avoided.

Worse than the decision to go to war with Iraq was the subsequent incompetent occupation. The historical knowledge of how to deal with the country was there. The MacArthur led occupation of Japan post WWII showed how the US could rebuild a defeated enemy and in so doing turn it into an important ally. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed how a divided society could find a way forward. A combination of these two approaches could have been used in Iraq.

@ Martin – Solid points all around. Really wish you develop some of those ideas, it’s a conversation worth having.

Stay tuned for today’s post.

Congress, you left out Congress.
Congress declares the Wars we fight in.
Congress didn’t declare War, but they did worse by voting for hostile actions which bypasses the Constitution. They acted UN-Constitutionally.
Congress has been feckless.
Congress has not only abdicated responsibility, they’ve created the virtual executive Dictator.
Congress is unaccountable.
Congress writes the laws.
Congress restricted our representation in 1929, when they declared an end to increases in the House. The last real increase was after the 1910 Census.