Judis on Political Consensus and the Iraq War

Ten years after we invaded Iraq, it’s worth examining how the decision to invade became a matter of bipartisan consensus at the time. We like to think that it was just Bush and the neo-cons who wanted it, but nearly all the leading lights of the Democratic party supported it too, including both Clintons. John Judis has a review of his experience as a prominent dissenter from that consensus. He found some unlikely allies:

I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.

In early 2003, I was invited to another CIA event: the annual conference on foreign policy in Wilmington. At that conference, one of the agency officials pulled me aside and explained that the purpose of the seminar was actually to try to convince the White House not to invade Iraq. They didn’t think they could do that directly, but hoped to convey their reservations by issuing a study based on our seminar. He said I had been invited because of my columns in The American Prospect, which was where, at the time, I made known my views opposing an invasion. When Spencer Ackerman and I later did an article on the CIA’s role in justifying the invasion, we discovered that there was a kind of pro-invasion “B Team” that CIA Director George Tenet encouraged, but what I discovered from my brief experience at the CIA was that most of the analysts were opposed to an invasion. (After Spencer’s and my article appeared, I received no more invitations for seminars or conferences.)

I had a similar experience when I talked to Jon Sumida, a historian at the University of Maryland, who specializes in naval history and frequently lectures at the military’s colleges. Sumida told me that most of the military people he talked to—and he had wide contacts—were opposed to an invasion. I confirmed what Sumida told me a year or so later when I was invited to give a talk on the Iraq war at a conference on U.S. foreign policy at Maryland. A professor from the Naval War College was to comment on my presentation. I feared a stinging rebuttal to my argument that the United States had erred in invading Iraq, but to my astonishment, the professor rebuked me for not being tough enough on the Bush administration…

The people who had the most familiarity with the Middle East and with the perils of war were dead set against the invasion. That includes not only the CIA analysts and the military professors, but also the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which rejected the administration’s claims that Iraq was about to acquire nuclear weapons. But they were not in a position to make their voices heard. The CIA analysts were reduced to creating this half-cocked scheme for getting a report on the far-flung future to the White House, which they hoped someone would read. The military dissenters, as we know, were silenced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. And the State Department was ignored by the White House…

My own experience after Powell’s speech bears out the tremendous power that an administration, bent on deception, can have over public opinion, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And when the dissenters in the CIA, military, and State Department are silenced, the public—not to mention, journalists—has little recourse in deciding whether to support what the administration wants to do.

The key difference between the two parties on this issue is that the Republican party is always behind any war, the Democrats are often not in favor of it but are too cowardly to take a public stand against it. And that’s because wars are always popular before and when they start. The government’s marketing campaign always works as intended, building the public into a furor over a usually imaginary threat. And no politician wants to risk being right when the public is wrong.

Seriously, was there anyone in America prior to the advertising blitz for the Iraq war who woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat at the thought of Saddam Hussein’s terrible threat to the United States? Of course not. But a few months of media messages about non-existent WMD and mushroom clouds, all based on lies, and the public dutifully became afraid of the things they told us to be afraid of, no matter how distant those claims were from reality. And thus a two-bit dictator that we put into office and kept under control was built up, in very short order, into the second coming of Adolf Hitler and an existential threat to us all.

These are conditioned responses. We are well-trained from birth to respond emotionally to ad campaigns that exploit our fears and insecurities. There’s little difference between being swayed to purchase the right kind of jeans or toothpaste because they will help us feel better about our social status, thus soothing our insecurities, and being convinced to support an invasion because our lives are in danger, thus soothing our fears. The techniques used to sell both product are the same; so is the result. And in both cases, there are powerful economic interests working the emotional levers for their own profit.


  1. oranje says

    I remember those days well, where the question of “why are we doing this?” was met with either a similarly confused look or some angry, rabies-like response of not taking threats seriously. Even my mother lambasted me for opposing an invasion, because they have all of these horrible weapons and what they’re going to do to us and their neighbours. Of course, she was sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell me who said this. But it was someone who would know.

    Uh huh.

  2. Alverant says

    I remember those days too. Democrats had to support the war or else they would be called traitors (they were anyway) and they couldn’t question the evidence (which couldn’t be independently verified for “security” reasons) because as Ashcroft said, “Questioning the President helps the terrorists.” So it’s not like they had a practical choice. Either support a war based on bad information or lose their jobs.

  3. says

    I have some experience with a similar situation, regarding the “cyberwar” blitz (which Americans will pay for with their dollars and others with their lives) it’s surreal when it happens…

  4. says

    The problem is that intellectual honesty prevents us from saying” “the government is always wrong” (because it’s not! Today is thursday!) but intellectual honesty is often an enemy of the truth.

  5. says

    We are well-trained from birth to respond emotionally to ad campaigns that exploit our fears and insecurities.”

    We are? Waaaah! Kill it kill it kill it!

  6. Draken says

    I don’t understand why the CIA would be against a war, any war. It gives them unprecedented opportunity to murder, torture, kidnap, intimidate and subvert with impunity, which is the only reason why people join such agencies.

  7. says

    Worth noting that the administration had a whole gang of Iraqi defectors lined up to tell them and the press exactly what they wanted to hear. Of course, these ex-pats who couldn’t return to their homeland while they were on Saddam’s shitlist *might* have had an ulterior motive or two

    It is also worth shaming the American people at large. The majority of us simply didn’t want to hear it. Or so the documentary my Broadcast Seminar class watched a month ago said.

  8. Michael Heath says

    Draken writes:

    I don’t understand why the CIA would be against a war, any war. It gives them unprecedented opportunity to murder, torture, kidnap, intimidate and subvert with impunity, which is the only reason why people join such agencies.

    The answer lies in your false premises regarding the nature of the CIA and the motivations on why people join.

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