White Hot Manifesto in a Grey-Shaded World

Two authors paint a canvas of heroes and cowards with no recognition of consequence.

More than a year after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces, the war remains the subject of fierce controversy. Leaders who supported it most strongly and those who opposed it most vehemently find themselves embattled at home and baffled abroad. The presidential campaign in the United States coincides with a growing domestic debate about the motives for war, the intelligence that was shared with the public, the management of the “post-war” transition in Iraq and the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. The opening round in the choosing of a U.S. president—the caucuses in Iowa—found eerie echoes in the proposal for caucuses in Iraq’s selection of a new government. Across the ocean in Paris, the chattering classes produced a spate of angry denunciations of the French opposition to war and bemoaned the sacrifice of scarce French political capital. The war cracked open the fault lines of longstanding alliances and pushed to the forefront deep debates about appropriate responses to new kinds of security challenges.

If one listens to the transatlantic debate, it becomes clear that the black and white of “for” and “against,” of “right” and “wrong,” distort the debate and hide the difficult choices. No choice was morally obvious before the war and none was free of damaging consequences. In the wake of the war, the uncertainties, both moral and practical, loom far larger than the certainties. There is much to consider, and much to learn.

David Frum and Richard Perle’s An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror is remarkable for its certainty, for its absence of critical reflection and for its unshakeable confidence that U.S. policy was, and is, right. Frum and Perle do not question, do not acknowledge mistakes. Indeed, they draw the black and white lines even more sharply in their prescription for the future. It is as if there were no errors of consequence, no need to reconsider, nothing to learn. It is as if they are blind to the facts on the ground that have led to the rebalancing and recalibration of the policies that they so strongly support. They give us a white-hot account of the past, present and future. Astonishingly, they do so even when the eddies of grey have marked and re-marked the white surfaces.

Critics and supporters of the war would do well to listen to one another. It is troubling that those who opposed the war are unwilling to acknowledge that Iraqis are now able to “do politics” in ways that they have not been able to for 40 years. It is troubling that the critics do not acknowledge Iraqi anger at all those who helped to keep Saddam Hussein in power for so long. It is troubling that they do not recognize the opportunity that the Shiah of Iraq now have to express their views, to practice their religion openly and to organize as a powerful voice in determining their future. It is troubling that the critics do not recognize that the majority of Iraqis are living free of the terror of arbitrary arrest, torture and execution. Some of these arguments Frum and Perle make with passion.

It is also troubling that supporters of the war continue to proclaim, with no hesitation, the virtues of unfettered unilateralism. Frum and Perle take central aim at the United Nations and argue that all the exercises in multilateralism ended in disappointment—or worse. In a gross distortion of the record, they allege that the UN force in Rwanda, present when the “massacres” began in 1994, “barricaded itself away and allowed the killings to proceed uninterrupted.” It is well established that the United States resisted the term “genocide”—for the term implied legal obligations to act—and refused to commit troops or logistical support to the understaffed force. There was little that the UN could have done when the major powers, fearful of intervention, deliberately remained on the sidelines. The failure to act in Rwanda ten years ago remains one of the most egregious failures of leadership by the U.S. and other great powers.

Frum and Perle also insist that the United States cannot surrender its sovereign right to defend itself to members of the United Nations Security Council. In an age of imminent threat, that argument is worth making, but it needs to be put in the context of the pleas by Washington to Secretary General Kofi Annan to return to Iraq to engage on issues of political reconstruction. It has become clear, if it needed to be made clear, that only the UN can provide legitimacy to an emergent governing structure. It is also obvious that UN staff bring a unique skill set with them, which is essential to the success of the mission. The United States, in short, needs the United Nations, its skills, its personnel and its legitimacy. Despite its unilateral tendencies, Washington cannot do the job alone.

An End to Evil makes no mention of this mutual dependency as it excoriates the UN and sneers at the Secretary General. Once we acknowledge that the U.S. needs the UN, the argument becomes much more complex and nuanced.Washington cannot expect to go its own way, as it sees fit, and then call on the United Nations to put out the fires it sets alight. Frum and Perle mock the UN without acknowledging that the institution they revile has been the object of intense lobbying by U.S. officials who belatedly recognized the limits of their power. Despite the unquestioned military superiority the United States enjoys, and will continue to enjoy for the rest of the decade, it needs allies and international institutions if it is to make the world a “safer” place in its own image.

The agenda that Frum and Perle lay out for the war on terror is massive in its scope.Much of that agenda—regime change in Syria, Iran and, if necessary, Libya, complemented by strong demands on feckless allies and punishment of those who refuse to help—springs from a different understanding of the “imminence” of threats. The issue for the two authors is not whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be fired with little warning, but whether it could, at some time in the future, develop these kinds of weapons from its present base. After September 11, imminence recedes further and further. The benchmark becomes political intentions, not current capabilities. Political intentions derive from attributes of regimes, and so the agenda becomes changing the regimes of those implacably opposed to the United States that may someday develop threatening military capabilities. The argument becomes regressive, a justification for military action in the absence of any immediate threat.

The difficulties of this kind of massive forward strategy are obvious. The U.S., were it to pursue this kind of strategy, would indeed find itself acting alone, without the support of allies. To put it bluntly, the United States does not have the range of capabilities that is necessary to accomplish what Frum and Perle argue must be done.

It is not only a practical question of capabilities. Larger issues of governance are at stake. International legal norms authorize pre-emptive attacks, but only when there is strong evidence of immediate intention to attack. This longstanding norm is, as the authors rightly argue, inadequate when small groups use multi-purpose technology to inflict great harm on civilians and destabilize society. States that support these kinds of groups place themselves legitimately in the line of fire, since imminence loses the purely military meaning that it once had. There is, nevertheless, a very wide gap between states that actively support attacks on civilians and those that may, at some time in the future, deploy weapons that can be used to attack or that may, just possibly, share technology with groups engaging in acts of terror. The burden of evidence shifts and the evidence must be seriously engaged rather than asserted as a matter of belief.

If it is to have any legitimacy in the conduct of its military operations, the United States will have to engage others in a conversation about the norms appropriate to new kinds of security challenges. It needs to do so for pragmatic reasons— even the United States needs allies and assistance—and for normative reasons. Repeated unilateral pre-emption can only serve to justify pre-emption by others—a far easier task today than it was a decade ago—and to delegitimize what remains of international restraints. As much as Washington can shape the system, it must be shaped by it in turn.

Frum and Perle advance a forward agenda at home as well as abroad. They launch a merciless attack on the Central Intelligence Agency as a spineless, bureaucratized, poorly led and ideological institution with “very strong, mostly liberal” policy views. It goes without saying that Frum and Perle consider liberal policy views sufficient in and of themselves to damn the CIA. That argument would hardly be persuasive to many long-time observers of the CIA.

More to the point, they correctly assert that the CIA has gotten it wrong many times in the last two decades. The agency exaggerated Soviet military spending, making the USSR seem a more formidable economic and military power than it was. It missed entirely Saddam’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons a decade ago. Recently, it underestimated the progress that Iran and Libya have made in developing nuclear weapons. These are not trivial errors, and much is wrong with the CIA. The cure, however, is not the politicization of intelligence that Frum and Perle recommend.

Intelligence agencies worldwide are generally traumatized by their last failure and consequently over-correct in the next round. Humiliated by its failure to detect Saddam’s chemical and biological programs, as well as by its failure to detect the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, the CIA inevitably overcompensated in the run-up to war. Like its counterparts around the world, when the CIA could not find evidence that Iraq had destroyed its stockpiles, it assumed that the weapons were hidden. Ironically, its task was complicated by the withdrawal of UN inspectors from the field; they had been providing a steady stream of on-the-ground intelligence about the weapons programs. David Kay, charged by the Bush administration with searching for hidden weapons, made it clear that from 1998 on, the CIA worked essentially in the dark, dependent on the chatter of those Iraqi scientists it could hear and on information from exiles who were motivated to exaggerate the threat. The CIA overestimated Iraq’s weapons and the threat they posed. Even then, however, officials in the Bush administration were dissatisfied with the intelligence they were receiving and charged the CIA with underestimating the threat. The Secretary of Defense insisted on seeing the raw intelligence and set up a parallel process of interpretation. In the months before the war, agency analysts felt pressured to state the threat in stronger terms. Their cautionary words dropped out of their estimates as they moved up the chain of command.

What does this story, alarming but not at all surprising, tell us? It suggests that the CIA needs to be more, not less, insulated from political processes. It suggests that the UN inspectors on the ground provided invaluable information. It suggests that the CIA needs agents with local language skills, and that it is dangerous to rely, as the Pentagon did, on information provided by exiles who are always motivated to overstate threats. What the CIA needs is greater independence and better human resources. This is a far different story from the one Frum and Perle tell.

Frum and Perle target not only the CIA, but also the State Department (for its bias toward negotiation and “appeasement”), the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Pentagon. The authors recommend a wholesale reorganization and politicization of U.S. institutions that would remove the checks and balances built into professional institutions and would destroy the independence that, over time, produces the highest quality analysis and the wisest policy. In the struggle to end evil, much of what is good and reasoned in U.S. policy would vanish.

Many of the recommendations in An End to Evil are impractical or dangerous. It is not so much the specific policy recommendations of Frum and Perle that alarm, however, as much as these authors’ black and white view of the world, their confident division between the enlightened supporters of the Iraq war and its deluded detractors. They inhabit a world of heroes and cowards where good struggles against evil in a Manichaean contest. Their zeal is revolutionary, untempered by recognition of contradiction and consequence.

Frum and Perle seek nothing less than the overthrow of the existing international order and its open replacement by an American imperium animated by the ideal of freedom. But that imperium is already present, as much through the global dominance of American enterprise, technological innovation and culture as through the unquestioned dominance of U.S. military power. The American imperium rests on deeply embedded networks of open exchange, international governance and burden sharing among allies. The existing international order is not an obstacle to the American imperium, but its necessary support. History tells us that the kind of policies Frum and Perle advocate generally end in imperial overreach, exhaustion and even collapse. At their most dangerous, such policies create the conditions under which terrorism will thrive, and democracy and freedom, genuinely beloved by the two authors, will shrivel in the white-hot heat.