Ten years (!) ago this week, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and co. opportunistically lied America (and its small but fierce band of international coalition partners — you forgot Poland, etc) into a near-unilateral war of convenience against Iraq, a move that was, at the time, mindlessly cheerleaded by a number of prominent liberal hawks (my personal favourite, h/t). While Saddam Hussein was easily toppled from power (and eventually captured, tried and executed), the destabilizing effects of the US-led invasion — to say nothing of the subsequent half-assed occupation — are still being felt today. (Butbutbut SURGE. Yeah.)
Check out the following recollections from two respected Beltway veterans who opposed Iraq at a moment when the DC party line was almost uniformly hawkish (even-the-liberals, natch), and one prominent supporter who, at the time, was residing comfortably in the belly of the Bush Administration beast.
In December of 2002, I was invited by the Ethics and Public Policy Center to a ritzy conference at an ocean front resort in Key West. The subject was to be Political Islam, and many of the best-known political journalists from Washington and New York were there. The conversation invariably got around to Iraq, and I found myself one of the few attendees who outright opposed an invasion. Two of the speakers at the event—Christopher Hitchens, who was then writing for Slate, and Jeffrey Goldberg, who was then writing for The New Yorker—generously offered to school me on the errors of my way.
I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.
The people who had the most familiarity with the Middle East and with the perils of war were dead set against the invasion. That includes not only the CIA analysts and the military professors, but also the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which rejected the administration’s claims that Iraq was about to acquire nuclear weapons. But they were not in a position to make their voices heard. The CIA analysts were reduced to creating this half-cocked scheme for getting a report on the far-flung future to the White House, which they hoped someone would read. The military dissenters, as we know, were silenced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. And the State Department was ignored by the White House.
We know how the WMD argument for the war stands up ten years later. What about the Wilsonian, moral case for democratizing the region as a whole? Fred Kaplan, of Slate and The Insurgents, examines that question today and says that it is another way in which the case for war was illusory and the decision to go to war was a huge mistake. For instance:
Ten years later, it’s clear that the Iraq war cast “a very large shadow” indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity’s natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.
You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. There was certainly plenty to discuss: unlike the 1991 Gulf War, there was no immediate crisis demanding a rapid response; unlike Vietnam, the U.S. entered the war fully aware that it was commencing a major commitment.
Yet that discussion never really happened, not the way that most people would have imagined anyway. For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past.
Over the past 10 years, there have been few days when the war in Iraq was absent from my thoughts. People often ask me whether I have regrets. It seems absurdly presumptuous to answer the question. I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me. And yet … all of us who advocated for the war have had to do some reckoning. If the war achieved some positive gains, its unnecessary costs—in human life, in money, to the prestige and credibility of the U.S. government—are daunting and dismaying. If we’d found the WMD, it would have been different. If we’d kept better order in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, it would have been different. If more Iraqis had welcomed the invasion as we expected, it would have been different. If the case for the war had been argued in a less contrived and predetermined way, it would have been different.
But it wasn’t different. Those of us who were involved—in whatever way—bear the responsibility.
Bonus vid: Hubris: Selling the Iraq War: