The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Frank Rich: Why Bush went to war

I am seeing a lot of plugs for New York Times columnist Frank Rich's new book, The Great Story Ever Sold, which makes the argument that Bush went to war against Iraq because Karl Rove needed a "war president" for the midterm elections in 2002. This simple explanation is perhaps the most convincing I have heard, especially as plenty of other people -- big business, the neo-cons -- were ready to jump on the bandwagon. From Gary Kamiya's review in Salon:
Far more compelling -- and originally argued -- is his insight into the real reason Bush went to war in Iraq. His answer to this endlessly debated question, and his related excursus on the personality of Bush himself, may be the single most lucid and convincing one I've ever read. Although it is almost painfully obvious, and wins the Occam's Razor test of being the simplest, it is put forward considerably less often than more ideological theories -- whether about controlling oil, supporting Israel, establishing American hegemony, or one-upping his father.

Perhaps this is because Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections. Yet Rich makes a powerful argument that that is the case.

Playing the key role, not surprisingly, is Karl Rove. "To track down Rove's role, it's necessary to flash back to January 2002," Rich writes. The Afghanistan war had been a success. "In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections." Rove decided Bush needed to be a "war president." The problem, however, was that Afghanistan was fading from American minds, Osama bin Laden had escaped, and the secret, unglamorous -- and actually effective -- approach America was taking to fighting terror wasn't a political winner. "How do you run as a vainglorious 'war president' if the war looks as if it's winding down and the number one evildoer has escaped?"

The answer: Wag the dog. Attack Iraq.

Now ideology comes in, along with the peculiar alliance of neocons and Cold War hawks that had been waiting for their chance. "Enter Scooter Libby, stage right." As Rich explains, Libby, Cheney and Wolfowitz had wanted to attack Iraq for a long time, not to stop terrorism but for the familiar neocon reasons of remaking the Middle East and the familiar Cold War hawk reasons of trumpeting America's might. "Here, ready and waiting on the shelf in-house, were the grounds for a grand new battle that would be showy, not secret, in its success -- just the political Viagra that Rove needed for an election year."
Obviously I'll need to read the book to see what Rich's argument really is, but this sounds very interesting indeed.