Why Kerry Is Right on Iraq

Why Kerry Is Right on Iraq

Perhaps Iraq would have been a disaster no matter what. But there’s a thinly veiled racism behind such views, implying Iraqis are savages.

By Fareed Zakaria


Aug. 23 issue – John Kerry isn’t being entirely honest about his views on Iraq. But neither is President George W. Bush. “Knowing what we know now,” Bush asked, “would [Kerry] have supported going into Iraq?” The real answer is, of course, “no.” But that’s just as true for Bush as for Kerry. We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Is Bush suggesting that despite this knowledge, he would still have concluded that Iraq constituted a “grave and gathering threat” that required an immediate, preventive war? Please.

Even if Bush had come to this strange conclusion, no one would have listened to him. Without the threat of those weapons, there would have been no case to make to the American people or the world community. There were good reasons to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it was the threat of those weapons that created the international, legal, strategic and urgent rationale for a war. There were good reasons why intelligence agencies all over the world—including those of Arab governments—believed that Saddam had these weapons. But he didn’t.

The more intelligent question is, given what we knew at the time, was toppling Saddam’s regime a worthwhile objective? Bush’s answer is yes, Howard Dean’s is no. Kerry’s answer is that it was a worthwhile objective but was disastrously executed. For this “nuance” Kerry has been attacked from both the right and the left. But it happens to be the most defensible position on the subject.

By the late 1990s, American policy on Iraq was becoming untenable. The U.N. sanctions had turned into a farce. Saddam was able to siphon off billions for himself, while the sanctions threw tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis into poverty every year. Their misery was broadcast daily across the Arab world, inflaming public opinion. America and Britain were bombing Iraqi military installations weekly and maintaining a large garrison in Saudi Arabia, which was also breeding trouble. Osama bin Laden’s biggest charges against the United States were that it was occupying Saudi Arabia and starving the Iraqi people.

Given these realities, the United States had a choice. It could either drop all sanctions and the containment of Iraq and welcome Saddam back into the world community. Or it had to hold him to account. Given what we knew about Saddam’s past (his repeated attacks on his neighbors, the gassing of the Kurds, the search for nuclear weapons) and given what we thought we knew at the time (that his search for WMD was active), conciliation looked like wishful thinking. It still does. Once out of his box, Saddam would almost certainly have jump-started his programs and ambitions.

Bush’s position is that if Kerry agrees with him that Saddam was a problem, then Kerry agrees with his Iraq policy. Doing something about Iraq meant doing what Bush did. But is that true? Did the United States have to go to war before the weapons inspectors had finished their job? Did it have to junk the United Nations’ process? Did it have to invade with insufficient troops to provide order and stability in Iraq? Did it have to occupy a foreign country with no cover of legitimacy from the world community? Did it have to ignore completely the State Department’s postwar planning? Did it have to pack the Governing Council with unpopular exiles, disband the Army and engage in radical de-Baathification? Did it have to spend a fraction of the money allocated for Iraqi reconstruction—and have that be mired in charges of corruption and favoritism? Was all this an inevitable consequence of dealing with the problem of Saddam?

Perhaps Iraq would have been a disaster no matter what. But there’s a thinly veiled racism behind such views, implying that Iraqis are savages genetically disposed to produce chaos and anarchy. In fact, other nation-building efforts over the past decade have gone reasonably well, when well planned and executed.

“Strategy is execution,” Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, American Express and RJR Nabisco, has often remarked. In fact, it’s widely understood in the business world that having a good objective means nothing if you implement it badly. “Unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they’re pointless,” writes Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell.

Bossidy has written a book titled “Execution,” which is worth reading in this context. Almost every requirement he lays out was ignored by the Bush administration in its occupation of Iraq. One important example: “You cannot have an execution culture without robust dialogue—one that brings reality to the surface through openness, candor, and informality,” Bossidy writes. “Robust dialogue starts when people go in with open minds. You cannot set realistic goals until you’ve debated the assumptions behind them.”

Say this in the business world and it is considered wisdom. But say it as a politician and it is derided as “nuance” or “sophistication.” Perhaps that’s why Washington works as poorly as it does.

Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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  1. Sparky August 17, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    It’s in the July 2004 posts. The title is “November 2004”

  2. Stacey August 17, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    Still waiting for your substantive remarks on why you are voting for Kerry and what Kerry would have/will do differently w/Iraq. I went to your blog and couldn’t find them.

  3. Sparky August 17, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    So, I guess this means you won’t take me up on the “what’s the case for voting for Bush” request?

  4. Stacey August 17, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    “One more point, Stacey, the fact that I didn’t vote for anybody in the 2000 presidential election kind of puts the kabosh to the whole “you’re just in the ABB group” concept.”

    Not necessarily, Mark. That’s like me saying since I voted for Gore 4 years ago, I’m not voting for Bush next time around. Who we did or didn’t vote for 4 years ago doesn’t necessarily dictate what your feelings are now. This is a different time with different issues, different opponents, different election.

  5. Anonymous August 17, 2004 at 5:25 am

    That would be Kibosh.

    Blue Diamond

  6. Sparky August 17, 2004 at 2:53 am

    One more point, Stacey, the fact that I didn’t vote for anybody in the 2000 presidential election kind of puts the kabosh to the whole “you’re just in the ABB group” concept.

  7. Sparky August 16, 2004 at 7:33 pm


    I didn’t mean to be condescending. I realize that it’s difficult to know everything the candidates have said — particularly since it comes through the media filter. However …

    Nowhere have I said that I would vote for anybody but Bush. I won’t vote for the man and if there is a reasonably alternative, I will vote for the alternative. I believe in an earlier message on another thread on this blog, I mentioned to you that I had posted an explanation for why I was voting for Kerry on my blog (kingmidget.blogspot.com).

    I’d really like to see a comparable explanation for what the case is for voting for Bush — not against Kerry — but FOR Bush.

    Regarding Kerry and Iraq — I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. He has provided specifics regarding how he would have handled the situation differently, how he would be handling it now if he was in charge, and how he will handle it moving forward if he is elected.

  8. Stacey August 16, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    Mark, there is no need for you to be condescending considering you don’t seem to have any clue what Kerry would have done differently either.

    FYI, I watched the convention, I watched the debates and I have heard nothing with substance from his mouth. (Funny how someone who always whines about the need for substantive comments finds Kerry’s lack of substance acceptable – but then again you proudly exhort how you will support ABB).

    I couldn’t care less about this author’s previous articles or stance. Jack posted this article and I found it to be pretty lacking and lame. I am about as impressed with his writing as I am with Paul Krugman’s.

  9. Sparky August 16, 2004 at 3:04 pm


    Apparently you haven’t been paying attention, he has said what he would have done differently, and he has said what he would do moving forward.

    Also, if you’ve read Zakaria over the past couple of years, you would know that he is somebody who supported the invasion of Iraq and has only lost his faith in the effort as he has seen how poorly this Administration has handled the matter. You may not want to hear that repeated, but it’s a valid point, particularly in an election year — much more valid than what either Bush or Kerry did 30-35 years ago.

  10. Stacey August 15, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    I am so tired of hearing Kerry stump about how poorly executed the war was. It is nothing new. And neither is this article. How easy it is to point fingers in hindsight. That is not impressive, but what might be is if Kerry would actually tell us what he would have done differently or his plan going forward.

  11. Anonymous August 15, 2004 at 8:50 pm

    That the war planning didn’t incorporate any real calculation of ethnic strife is one of the gravest mistakes the US made when it decided to invade iraq. When you have read ‘plan of attack’ by bob woodward you’ll know that it is only mentioned as a sidenote in the defense estimates. The inner circle of bush, espescially cheney and wolfowitz, were so obsessed with their delusional conviction that saddam possessed WMD’s that they totally forgot that the people in iraq were maybe not welcoming them with open arms and that they probably weren’t the best neighbours of eachother either.

    I remember zakaria supporting bush during his march to war. That a self declared ‘toqueville’ was absolutely unable to predict the dissolvement of iraq’s social cohesion after the first US tanks rolled in demonstrates that he understands absolutely nothing about tribal societies and the historic context in which they’re funded.

    And so here zakaria goes, making comparisons with the business world like the US forces invaded iraq as a marketing campaign to sell central heatings and computers. What’s next, large banners with:’US occupation, by the way we treat your prisoners you know saddam’s brutality has ceased’. To not make a complete fool out of himself by confessing he was totally wrong in his previous columns zakaria denies that tribal differences in iraq even exist.

    Go on fareed by hopelessly defending your outdated writings for a hopeless administration in a hopeless war fought for a hopeless outcome.


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