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Partisan Review

In the run-up to the Iraq war, I tried hard not to be partisan. I distrusted the Bush administration and feared it would be politically empowered by the war. But such thoughts felt petty and limited at such an important time. And so I evaluated the arguments for war on their merits, irrespective of my feelings about the people making them. Doing so made me feel superior to the Democrats, who, I suspected, would have supported an Iraq war waged by Al Gore, and to the Republicans, who had opposed the Kosovo war because it was waged by Bill Clinton.

But, in retrospect, my efforts not to be limited proved limiting. Partisanship, it turned out, was an extremely useful analytical tool in understanding the Iraq war. Had I not tried so hard to cleanse myself of it, I might have seen some of the war's problems earlier than I did. This was a partisan war. By partisan, I don't mean that it was led by Republicans. It was partisan in the sense that the people who formulated it prized group loyalty above all else. They divided the world, the country, and even their own administration into people who could be trusted and people who could not. And, unfortunately, the people who could be trusted knew much less about how to build democracy in Iraq than the people who could not.

In its broadest sense, the partisanship pitted America against those countries skeptical of war. The governments of France, Russia, and Germany made various arguments against invading Iraq. Sometimes they even suggested that Europe's colonial history provided them with valuable insights into the difficulties of occupying an Arab country. President Jacques Chirac twice told President George W. Bush that France's experience in Algeria should serve as a cautionary tale. But the striking thing about the pro-war camp in Washington was how little it engaged with foreign governments' arguments, let alone experiences, and how much it focused on their motives. Conservatives mocked the conspiracy-minded left for suggesting the Bush administration was going to war for oil. But they simply took it for granted that France and Russia opposed the war to preserve their contracts with Saddam. In the days before the invasion, conservatives speculated gleefully about the Iraqi documents American soldiers were sure to find proving that Chirac had been personally corrupted by Saddam. Who needed to ponder seriously the objections of a man like that?

The second group that could not be trusted was American liberals. Since the press was permeated by left-wing bias, reporting that undermined the case for war was naturally suspect. As Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon writes in his book, Misunderestimated, "Bush thinks that immersing himself in voluminous, mostly liberal-leaning news coverage might cloud his thinking." Since most academics who studied the Arab world were self-evidently anti-American, conservatives trusted only one prominent historian of the Middle East: Bernard Lewis. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also had hidden agendas. In the 1990s, America's NGOs had amassed considerable experience in postwar reconstruction. But that experience had come from Bill Clinton's "social work" wars: Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, East Timor--wars the Bushies had ridiculed. And, thus, these examples were rarely cited or examined. It was as if the only countries America had ever occupied were Germany, Japan, and perhaps South Korea.

In his Atlantic Monthly article "Blind into Baghdad," James Fallows notes that the NGOs requested a meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, in January to discuss postwar planning. They never got one. And, after the war, as Joshua Marshall, Laura Rozen, and Colin Soloway have detailed in The Washington Monthly, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) didn't hire veterans of the reconstruction efforts of the '90s; it hired conservative lobbyists and Hill staffers. As journalists in Baghdad joked about CPA headquarters, "They don't call it the Republican Palace for nothing."

Finally, there were the enemies within the administration itself. As Fallows notes, the State Department, CIA, and military did a great deal of prewar planning, much of it prescient. But all three institutions were deemed antiwar, and that mattered more than their insights. As former White House speechwriter David Frum has written, "[T]he CIA's warnings on Iraq matters had lost some of their credibility in the 1990s. The agency was regarded by many in the Bush administration as reflexively and implacably hostile to any activist policy in Iraq." When Defense Department employees participated in a CIA simulation of postwar Iraq, they were reprimanded by top Pentagon officials. And, when Jay Garner, Iraq's first post-Saddam administrator, hired Thomas Warrick, who had led the State Department's prewar planning effort, he was forced by Rumsfeld to fire him. After Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz rebuked General Eric Shinseki, who had led U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, for saying Iraq would require "several hundred thousand" troops, The Weekly Standard wrote an article on the topic. Determining how many troops it would take to occupy Iraq was an "important question," the article acknowledged. But, it added, "most of the people who ask this question are isolationists trying to make the case against war."

In the fall of 2002, I worried about the administration's aversion to nation-building. But I assumed that, because postwar Iraq--unlike Afghanistan--was crucial to the president's reelection, his administration would listen to the people who understood postwar reconstruction best. What I didn't realize was that, for top Bush officials and their conservative allies, there were no "best practices" that spanned administrations, parties, or nations. There was just their way and their opponents' way. And, if their way placed ideology above expertise, that was fine, because, despite all its denials, the other side did, too.

For conservatives, the right lesson of Iraq is that, if you apply a loyalty test to this country's best sources of knowledge--the academy, the press, and the government itself--you'll lose the war on terrorism through sheer ignorance. For liberals, the lesson is to see conservatives as they are, not as you'd like them to be. I'll try to remember it next time.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine