The architects of defeat must be held responsible.

The Blame Game

By Stephen M. Walt

Foreign Policy: November/December 2005

Who will be blamed for Iraq? It’s easy for politicians to point fingers at each other. But ultimately, the buck stops at the Oval Office.

The United States’ involvement in Iraq just keeps getting messier every day. The insurgency is as potent as ever, and U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians are dying at a higher rate than they were a year ago. Efforts to reconcile Iraq’s ethnic and religious divisions have failed, and progress on building competent security forces has been painfully slow. A series of supposedly decisive “turning points” have come and gone—including the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004, national elections in January 2005, and the drafting of a new constitution in August 2005—but the country is no closer to stability. Public support for the war is plummeting in the United States, and current U.S. troop levels cannot be sustained without breaking the Army, the Reserves, and the National Guard. Once U.S. forces withdraw, a full-blown civil war is likely. Although our armed forces have fought with dedication and courage, this war will ultimately cost us more than $1 trillion, not to mention thousands of lives. And what will the United States have achieved? Remarkably, we will probably leave Iraq in even worse shape than it was under Saddam Hussein.

“Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Those famous words penned long ago have a special resonance today. If the United States loses the war in Iraq, there will inevitably be a bitter debate over who is responsible. With prospects for victory fading, the people who led us into this bastard conflict are already devising various rationales to explain the failure and deny their paternity. As the debate over “who’s losing Iraq” heats up, the American people should not be hoodwinked by these after-the-fact alibis. The architects of defeat must be held responsible.

Moderates who backed the war, including a number of prominent Democrats, now argue that they did so only because they were misled by the cia’s faulty intelligence and deliberately deceived by President George W. Bush’s administration. This line of reasoning was Sen. John Kerry’s defense during the 2004 presidential campaign. Similar explanations have been offered by other pro-war Democrats and repentant pundits such as the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, whose prewar book The Threatening Storm made the moderates’ case for war. The problem with this alibi, however, is that there was already plenty of evidence that cast doubt on the administration’s case, information that was publicly available before the fighting started. Invading Iraq was not their idea, but the moderates who went along deserve no credit for being so gullible.

Pro-war hawks offer a different set of excuses. Some assert that going to war was the right idea, but the operation was bungled by incompetent leadership in the Pentagon. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wants Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, yet the pundit simultaneously claims that the debacle in Iraq vindicates his earlier call for vast increases in U.S. defense spending. In this view, we are losing because we don’t have a big enough army to run an empire and because civilians at the top were never serious about winning.

This excuse suffers from two glaring weaknesses. First, the war may not have been winnable no matter what we did, because Iraq was a deeply divided society from the onset, and occupying powers almost always face fierce resistance. That the occupation was badly executed is indisputable, but it is by no means clear that any occupation would have succeeded. Second, if hawks such as Kristol thought we needed a bigger military to perform a global imperial role, they should have withheld their support until adequate forces were available. Instead, they did everything they could to get us into the regime-changing business as quickly as possible.

For their part, Secretary Rumsfeld and other administration officials blame our problems on Baathist “dead-enders” and radical jihadis, aided and abetted by Syria and Iran. It’s not the Bush administration’s fault we’re losing, we are told; it’s our enemies’ fault. That is no defense at all, of course, because it merely reminds us that the Bush team failed to anticipate what would happen once Saddam was gone and we “owned” Iraq. And given that the Bush administration has repeatedly threatened Syria and Iran with regime change, it is hardly surprising that these regimes are now happy to see us bogged down in Baghdad. U.S. leaders should have considered these possibilities before they went to war, and their failure to do so is hardly a reason to excuse them now.

The most scurrilous alibi, however, blames our difficulties on eroding public support at home. Grieving antiwar mother Cindy Sheehan gets pilloried by right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and President Bush declares that Americans who favor withdrawing “are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States.” Similarly, neoconservative pundit Max Boot recently maintained that Iraqi democracy would survive its birth pangs only “if we don’t cut and run prematurely.” So, we are told, “staying the course” will work, unless we are forced to pull out by weak-willed critics back home.

This argument is a clever bit of political jujitsu, because it in effect blames any future defeat on the people who have long contended that the war was unnecessary and unwise. But it is also a bogus excuse. In a democracy, a commander in chief who wants to go to war is responsible for building and maintaining public support for sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way. President Bush sold the war brilliantly before the fighting started, but his sales pitch could not survive the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the embarrassing revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, the bungled occupation, the mounting list of dead and wounded, and the rising economic toll. Most of all, this rationale highlights the conspicuous lack of a plausible theory of victory now. We are not losing because our troops lack public support. The war lacks support because we are losing.

If our Iraq adventure ends badly, there will be ample blame to go around. But the buck should stop, as President Harry Truman famously said, in the Oval Office. President Bush was quick to claim credit when things were going well, and he cannot escape blame when things turn ugly. This is President Bush’s war, and America’s failure will be his legacy.

Stephen M. Walt is academic dean at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: Norton, 2005).