THE REAL REASON FOR WAR….I promised I was going to comment on the “Bush lied about the real reason for war” argument that Dan Drezner brought up the other day, and today is the day. Here’s the background: basically, Dan pointed out that there is a moderate consensus of both left (which disapproves) and right (which approves) that the real reason for war was not WMD or UN resolutions or any of that. The real argument for war was the neocon contention that the Middle East is an economic backwater ruled by medieval theocracies that has become a breeding ground for high stakes terrorism. Someone needs to set them on the path to democracy, tolerance, and economic growth, and that someone is us.

Dan has since weighed in on this himself, and it turns out that he’s written almost exactly what I would have written. Almost, but not quite, that is, so let me amplify.

First, Dan correctly identifies two concerns about all this: (a) is it ethical, and (b) is it practical?

On the ethical question, he says that there were a lot reasons for war, so Bush really didn’t do anything wrong by emphasizing one aspect over another. I think that’s close to right, although I also think he carries the argument a bit too far in two ways. First, he cuts Bush too much slack on the “other” reasons for war, namely Saddam’s WMD making him a serious threat to the United States, since this has turned out ? so far ? to be largely unfounded. Second, I think he gives Bush too much credit for occasionally talking about the “real” reason. He never explicitly did, aside from infrequent and pro forma praise of democracy and freedom.

If it turns out that Bush flatly lied about Saddam’s WMD, that’s inexcusable. But assuming he didn’t, then emphasizing a simple argument like that versus the more complex neocon one isn’t exactly uncommon in politics. Given what we know now ? which, admittedly, could change ? I can’t get very excited about the proposition that he did anything seriously wrong here.

Then there’s the practical aspect, and on this I think Dan is exactly right: by not leveling with the public about his goals and the difficulty of reaching them, he risks losing support for them in short order.

It doesn’t take much historical hindsight to see this point. In World War II, for example, our goals were clear: unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. Everybody knew it, the public bought into it, and we were willing to stick it out until we accomplished it. Likewise, in the Cold War, presidents from Truman forward were explicit about our long-term goals of containment and were consistent in their argument that we were fighting an entire worldview, not just a single country. They were honest about this argument because they truly believed it and thought it was right, and despite the fact that it probably made the conflict more difficult for the United States it was this honest conviction that made the Cold War widely accepted. Because of this we kept up the fight for over 40 years and eventually won.

Compare that to Vietnam. The goals were never clear and successive presidents misled the country about how long we would be there, how hard it would be, and what it would take to win. The result is that public support eventually waned and in 1975 we pulled out in defeat.

This is why supporters of the neocon agenda should be very, very nervous about the fact that George Bush never explicitly talks about their plan. It means that either he doesn’t really believe in it himself, or that he thinks the public wouldn’t support it if they knew about it. If either of these is true, there is virtually no chance of pulling it off.

This is, unfortunately, the worst of all worlds. I think the neocons in general are woefully naive about the limits of American military power to reshape the world, but at the same time I have considerable sympathy for their general view that the only answer to 21st century terrorism is economic growth and liberalization in the Middle East and Africa. The neocon plan might work, but it will certainly fail if the American public loses interest in the project because it never knew that’s what it was signing up for in the first place.

As Matt Yglesias points out, there’s no way to know for sure what Bush himself thinks, but if he does view this as a multi-decade struggle, he’d better take to the airwaves and start preparing people. My best guess right now is that he thinks it’s a long-term fight but the American public thinks we were over there just to get rid of Saddam Hussein. That’s a potentially deadly combination.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, it’s worth mentioning that I most definitely don’t accept Steven Den Beste’s crude view that the president shouldn’t tell the American public about his larger goals because “They don’t need to know, and can’t be trusted to know.” This is not a specific operational aspect of war that needs to be kept secret from our enemies, it’s an argument about the overarching principle behind American policy and America’s place in the world for the next several decades. If the American public ? and the world ? can’t be trusted with that, we should just pack up and go home. Steven should be ashamed of himself for writing such a thing.

UPDATE: Kieran Healy is unimpressed with Dan’s argument. If Bush lied about WMD then I think Kieran’s argument is absolutely correct. However, although he may have pushed the envelope harder than he should have, and should properly be held to account for that, I think Bush truly did believe that Iraq possessed large quantities of WMD. Time will tell.