Reality can be inconvenient. It can get in the way when politicians are busy with bamboozlement. George W. Bush and his comrades-in-spin have for years pitched their Iraq misadventure as the central front in the “war on terror.” We must fight them there to prevent them from fighting us here, goes their grade-school-level argument, cooked up to replace the WMD argument (which lost its utility in the absence of WMDs). But the recent disclosure of a classified National Intelligence Estimate, first reported by the New York Times, has undercut that justification. The NIE, finished in April, noted that Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the subsequent–inept and brutal–occupation has led to a rise in Islamic radicalism that has increased the threat posed by global jihadists. “The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists,” the NIE says, “breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” To be blunt: Bush & Co. got it exactly wrong.
This is not, alas, very surprising. They have gotten everything about Iraq wrong. And the tragedy is that they need not have. Before the war, experts on terrorism and the Middle East raised the possibility (the probability) that an invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good to the Administration’s effort to crush the murderous Al Qaeda and its allies. It was hardly unforeseen that the invasion would sow suspicion and anti-Americanism, which would be invaluable and exploitable for the forces of bin Ladenism. In fact, before the invasion, as this magazine argued–and as our colleague David Corn points out in his book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (written with Michael Isikoff)–just about every problem and challenge that has transpired in the wake of the invasion, from sectarian strife to rampant violence and chaos, was predicted by policy experts within the military, the State Department and the CIA. The Bush White House and the civilian leaders of the Pentagon (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith) were uninterested in such reality-based policy work. They ignored it because acknowledging such analysis would have been an admission that they were about to engage in something other than a cakewalk, a real drag on the sales campaign for the war.
So now one question is, Does this NIE, which notes that jihadists “are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion,” change anything? An NIE is a consensus assessment of the intelligence agencies. The report indicates that the government’s best terrorism experts believe the war is a factor in fueling the spread of jihadism. Experts can be wrong; but such a judgment should have given Bush and his aides pause and prompted a strategic review. The White House responded to the NIE leak quickly–and predictably. It initially claimed the stories did not convey the report’s nuances. Only under pressure did it release excerpts of the NIE, which indeed warns that the global jihadist movement is spreading and that the war has contributed to this trend.
The White House declines to confront the implications of this conclusion. There is a pattern here. Before the invasion, it refused to see the holes in its case for war or the warnings of the chaos to come. After the invasion, as Iraq slid toward civil war and bedlam, it consistently declared that progress was being made. In September Bush claimed he invaded Iraq because it was a “clear threat”–although it’s been demonstrated that Iraq had no unconventional weapons and no ties to Al Qaeda. Throughout the Iraq endeavor, intelligence and analysis have not mattered to Bush or his aides. The mission now is to keep sidestepping such intrusions–all the way through election day.