War Hawks Were Wrong, Wrong, Wrong about Iraq

As we near the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, we all need to account for our positions in 2003

Here is something other than The Sequester to think about at the beginning of March:

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.

My reasons for bringing this up:
1) Reckoning. Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.
I feel I was right in arguing, six months before the war in "The Fifty-First State," that invading Iraq would bring on a slew of complications and ramifications that would take at least a decade to unwind.

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.
2) Accountability. For a decade or more after the Vietnam war, the people who had guided the U.S. to disaster shrank from the public stage. Robert McNamara did worthy penance at the World Bank. Rusk, Rostow, Westmoreland were not declaiming on what the U.S. should and should not do.
After Iraq, there has been a weird amnesty and amnesia about people's misjudgment on the most consequential decision of our times. Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 primary race largely because she had been "wrong" on Iraq and Barack Obama had been "right." But Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, Rice, McCain, Abrams, and others including the pro-war press claque are still offering their judgments unfazed. George W. Bush has been an honorable exception.
I don't say these people should not weigh in. But there should be an asterisk on their views, like the fine print about side effects in pharmaceutical ads.
3) Honor. Say this for Al Gore: He was forthright, he was early, and he was right about Iraq.
4) Liberal hawks. Say this about the "liberal hawk" faction of 2002-2003: unlike, say, Peter Beinart, not enough of them have reckoned with what they got wrong then, and how hard many of them were pushing the "justice" and "duty" to invade. It would be good to hear from more of them, ten years on.
5) Threat inflation. As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.
Otherwise: the "missile gap." The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong -- or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.
Which brings me to:
6) Iran. Most of the people warning stridently about the threat from Iran now warned stridently about Iraq ten years ago. That doesn't prove they are wrong this time too. But it's a factor to be weighed. Most of the technical warnings we are getting about Iran's capabilities are like those we got about Saddam's. That doesn't prove they are wrong again. But it's a factor.

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.

7) Clarity. I said earlier that I regretted not being more direct and blatant in saying: Don't go into Iraq. For more than eight years, I've tried to argue very directly that a preemptive military strike on Iran would be an enormous mistake on all levels for either Israel or the United States. Strategically it could only cement-in Iranian hostility for the long run. Tactically every professional soldier -- Israeli, American, or otherwise -- who has examined the practicalities of such a mission has warned that it would be folly.
Lest the soldiers seem to gloomy, several U.S. Senators are working on a resolution committing the U.S. to lend its military and diplomatic support if PM Netanyahu decides, against the advice of most of his military establishment, to attack. It would be bad enough if Netanyahu got his own country into this bind; there is no precedent for the U.S. delegating to any ally the decision to commit our troops to an attack -- it's different from treaty obligations for mutual defense.
There is more ahead about Israeli, Iranian, and American negotiating strategies, but this is enough for now.
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