Tomas Young’s Iraq War Letter

by Benjamin Studebaker

So today there’s an open letter going around the internet from a fellow by the name of Tomas Young directed toward George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Young is terminally ill and has chosen to parlay that into an opportunity to vent his anger at Bush and Cheney over the feckless war they waged in Iraq. Having myself been opposed to the Iraq War as early as 2002 (and yes, I was quite young to be in opposition), I agree with some of what Young has to say, but I think he makes a common mistake in conflating two contradictory responses to the war.

One of the things that is so striking about the letter is how it lays the war at the feet of Bush and Cheney on a moral level:

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Simultaneously, however, Young points out that the war did not benefit the American interest:

The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure.

These two critiques don’t really match up. The former critique is an accusation of malevolence on the part of Bush and Cheney–they wanted wealth and power for America, so they went into Iraq to get it.  The latter points out that going into Iraq failed to achieve this. It did not set up a pro-US democratic counterweight to Iran; if anything it put an end to the Iran-Iraq balance of power and left Iran in the driver’s seat. Young also notes that rebuilding Iraq was supposed to be paid for with Iraqi oil, but that never really happened, with extensive costs born by the US state (and in the meantime, we figured out how to frack, so it turned out we didn’t even need the oil after all).

To be fair, I realised I was confounding the same things too when I interviewed at Oxford (unsuccessfully) in 2010. It was pointed out to me that it was strange to simultaneously argue that Bush was incompetent while simultaneously claiming that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and company were malevolent bastards. My evolution on the question continued in college, when I read George W. Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points. With Hanlon’s Razor in mind, I have come to the conclusion that the liberal stereotype of the Bush administration, that they were simultaneously useless and malicious, is not true.

Let’s remember the assumptions the Bush administration went into Iraq with. These were the people who subscribed to the democratic peace theory, the notion that it is in America’s interest to bring democracy to new lands purely on the basis that democratic countries are easier to get along with (never mind our excellent trade relations with China). These were the guys who thought bringing democracy to Iraq would result in a democratic domino effect, in which all the Middle Eastern countries became friendly democracies. Iraq was supposed to be a beacon, remember? And we would be greeted as liberators. And somehow, no matter how corrupt Maliki’s government gets, no matter how much sectarian violence there was and is, no matter how much Iran is aided by all of this, we are supposed to still feel okay about the war because we got Saddam, because somehow it is meant to be impossible to make the political situation in the Middle East worse than it was before we got Saddam Hussein.

This is not clever. This is not even malevolent. These people went into Iraq thinking they would do something wonderful, not merely for the Iraqis, but for the Middle East in general. These guys thought they were opening the Middle East to the world, that we would gain exponentially from strong trade relations in the region, and that the only losers would be the Baathists and the terrorists. They were totally wrong, and everyone has suffered for it–the United States, its allies, Iraq, just about everyone except Iran is worse off. But can we blame Bush and Cheney for this? Surely not. They were fools–fools we elected in 2000 (or came close enough such that rigging Florida was feasible, either way, it’s on us).

But that’s not the kicker. The kicker is that 2004 rolled around. We were a year into the war. We knew what these guys believed. We had every opportunity to see that it was stupid. We voted  for them again–by a larger margin than (allegedly) in 2000.

It’s easy to pick on Bush and Cheney, but they are mortal men, not gods. I’ve met reasonably intelligent people who think the things Bush and Cheney thought. These guys mean well, they’re just mistaken people. We are the ones who failed to question their ideas, to pick them apart and discard them. We are the ones who elected them, and re-elected them. The voters are the fools. So when the cry goes up again to put the “war criminals” on trial, it is a cry I feel much misplaced. I hold no enmity for the members of the Bush administration. They made a mistake, a grave mistake, that ruined the lives of thousands of people and damaged the interests of the country, but they did so within the confines of the democratic system they were part of. We were well aware of what they were doing, and we sat idly by–we did more than that, we voted for it and supported it. “Don’t cut and run,” we said. Imagine that.

And it’s not just us as a group–Tomas Young himself joined the military voluntarily after 9/11. He put his life in George Bush’s hands. As Young points out, Bush and Cheney both were clever enough to realise that going to Vietnam was not in their interest. In this respect the men we condemn for their foolishness were wiser than some.

So were it up to me, I would not, as Tomas Young suggests, put Bush on trial. I would not send him to prison. Nor would I jail his officials. What I would do is eliminate the system that made it possible. I would strip the vote from the great majority of the people of this country, for they proved once and for all, that even with our elaborate modern education system and all our college graduates, we are not capable as a group of choosing our own government intelligently. But that would actually entail accepting our failure rather than pointing it elsewhere, would it not?