This month marks ten years since the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq. In my view this was the biggest strategic error by the United States since at least the end of World War II and perhaps a much longer period. Vietnam was costlier and more damaging, but also more understandable. As many people have chronicled, the decision to fight in Vietnam was a years-long accretion of step-by-step choices, each of which could be rationalized at the time. Invading Iraq was an unforced, unnecessary decision to risk everything on a "war of choice" whose costs we are still paying.
I feel not "wrong" but regretful for having resigned myself even by that point to the certainty that war was coming. We know, now, that within a few days of the 9/11 attacks many members of the Bush Administration had resolved to "go to the source," in Iraq. Here at the magazine, it was because of our resigned certainty about the war that Cullen Murphy, then serving as editor, encouraged me in early 2002 to do an examination of what invading and occupying Iraq would mean. The resulting article was in our November, 2002 issue; we put it on line in late August in hopes of influencing the debate.
My article didn't come out and say as bluntly as it could have: we are about to make a terrible mistake we will regret and should avoid. Instead I couched the argument as cautionary advice. We know this is coming, and when it does, the results are going to be costly, damaging, and self-defeating. So we should prepare and try to diminish the worst effects (for Iraq and for us). This form of argument reflected my conclusion that the wheels were turning and that there was no way to stop them. Analytically, that was correct: Tony Blair or Colin Powell might conceivably have slowed the momentum, if either of them had turned anti-war in time, but few other people could have. Still, I'd feel better now if I had pushed the argument harder at the time.
For the record, Michael Kelly, who had been editor of the magazine and was a passionate advocate of the need for war, allowed us to undertake this project and put it on the cover even though he disagreed. Soon thereafter he was in Iraq, as an embedded reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division; in an incredible tragedy he was killed during the early days of the invasion.
Purportedly authoritative inside reports, replete with technical details about "yellowcake" or aluminum tubes, had an outsized role in convincing people of the threat from Iraq. We wish now that more people had looked hard at those claims. If you'd like to see someone looking hard at similar technical claims about Iran, please check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where Youssaf Butt argues that the latest warnings mean less than they seem. Also from the Bulletin, a previous debunking, and a proposal for a negotiated endgame with Iran.
Again: like most of humanity, I can't judge these nuclear-technology arguments myself. But the long history of crying-wolf hyped warnings, in some cases by the same people now most stridently alarmist about Iran, puts a major burden of proof on those claiming imminent peril.