the national interest

Iraq: What I Got Wrong, and What I Still Believe

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures during his address to the UN Security Council February 5, 2003 in New York City. Powell is making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq is deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Since it’s Iraq War mea culpa week, I ought to fess up for those readers who didn’t follow me ten years ago and admit that I supported the war. I was wrong about it. But the conclusions I’ve drawn from the episode are not the conclusions many other liberals have drawn. Since I am asked about this periodically, I should explain why.

Unlike, say, David Frum or Andrew Sullivan, I can’t claim to have been freaked out by 9/11. I can’t even claim to have been carried away by enthusiasm for the project of democratizing Iraq. The argument I made at the time was more prosaic. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the United States and its allies forced Iraq to promise, among other things, to submit to United Nations inspections to verify that it had vacated its unconventional weapons and was not building more of them (especially nuclear weapons). Iraq never fully complied with these terms. Over more than a decade, Saddam Hussein vacillated between complying with some of the terms and complying with none of them. (Richard Butler, the U.N. chief weapons inspector, was among many of those who testified about Iraq’s years of noncompliance.) I followed this throughout the nineties frustrated at Saddam’s ability to evade full compliance for so many years.

My logic in supporting the war boiled down to the following:

  1. The truce terms of the Gulf War requiring a complete, verified shutdown of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were valid and necessary.
  2. Iraq had refused to comply fully with these terms.
  3. Therefore, it was appropriate for the United States to threaten — and if necessary, carry out — war in order to force Iraq to comply.

Looking back, I have several regrets. We now know that Iraq no longer had any unconventional weapons program. Over the years, this has come to be seen as retrospectively obvious. It was not. While the Bush administration deliberately twisted and overhyped evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the legitimate evidence did show, albeit less dramatically than the administration said, that Iraq had active unconventional weapons programs. This was the judgment of fellow Western intelligence agencies. It was also a logical inference from Saddam Hussein’s refusal to fully comply with U.N. demands even after threatened with invasion. (That Iraq refused full compliance was documented at the time by Hans Blix, Butler’s successor, but this has largely been brushed aside in the retrospective critique.)

The absence of weapons of mass destruction is the most crucial element of my argument that I got wrong, though the part I have the least regret for getting wrong, as it was very hard to know at the time.

I made other errors in my analysis that I should have known at the time. I thought many — even most — of the arguments for war were terrible: jingioistic waving of the 9/11 bloody shirt, the use of Saddam’s brutality as an emotional bludgeon, and worse. What’s more, I also thought that the anti-interventionist left’s sociological analysis of the debate taking place was correct. Somehow, supporting the war was cool and a sign of seriousness, creating waves of social pressure on politicians and commentators in a way that prevented a fair debate.

I didn’t write any of these things at the time. Why not? I can certainly blame what was then, for me and my colleagues, the pre-blogging age. We still wrote at a print magazine pace, which meant publishing a story every couple of weeks. I had many more unpublished thoughts, and I didn’t prioritize dissecting the arguments of people with whom I agreed on the bottom line. But publication schedules don’t fully excuse me here. I wasn’t afraid to alienate my colleagues, editors, and employer, but I didn’t go out of my way to do it, either. I have a lot of regret for this.

The biggest single conceptual failure of my argument for war is that I gave absurdly little thought to the post-invasion phase. I was aware that the Bush administration was deploying far too few troops to the front for a workable occupation while blatantly lying about the war’s likely costs. I assumed that its real plan was to decapitate the Iraqi leadership, install a more pliant and less brutal military figure in Saddam’s place, and call it democracy.

In other words, I deemed the administration’s rhetoric about democracy to be a pack of lies. Now, I could accept this, because I assumed the successor regime would be less brutal than the psychotically cruel one that was being deposed. The quality of the regime was an important predicate for my support of the war — I would not have supported it had I believed it would make life harder for Iraqis, on the whole — but not the necessary rationale. I assumed these things because at the time Bush appeared — from the 2000 campaign through Florida through his push to cut taxes — to be a dishonest but ruthlessly effective figure. A messy, undermanned occupation would be politically fatal, I reasoned, therefore Bush wouldn’t actually undertake one.

But my view of the postwar was facile. I really focused nearly all my attention to the legitimacy of the war, and almost none to its advisability. Indeed, I essentially mistook one for the other: In my mind, establishing that the United States had a moral right to enforce the truce terms of the Gulf War closed the case.

Now, why didn’t I think very hard about the occupation? I think I was probably influenced by the recent history. And here is where I depart most sharply from most other liberals, especially the younger ones, who have responded to the war by adopting dramatically more anti-interventionist views on foreign policy.

The Gulf War took place during my freshman year in college. It was the first major American war since Vietnam, and the legacy of Vietnam cast a heavy shadow — the news was filled with dire warnings of bloody warfare, tens of thousands of U.S. deaths, uprisings across the Middle East. None of it happened. And again, through the nineties, the United States intervened in the Balkans twice under Bill Clinton, saving countless lives and disproving the fears of the skeptics, which had grown weaker but remained.

These events had conditioned me to trust the hawks, or at least, the better informed hawks. They also conditioned me unconsciously to regard wars through this frame, as relatively fast attacks without a heavy occupation phase. People tend to think the next war will be somewhat like the last. That is a failing I will try to avoid again.

It may be true that my formative experiences left an imprint so deep it can’t be covered over. I try to guard against that. When I read younger political writers on foreign policy, I don’t get the sense that they are guarding against this flaw. I get the sense that their foreign policy worldview is dominated by the Iraq War in the same way the Boomer generation is dominated by Vietnam and the generation before them by World War II. The formative event of their adulthood is the reference point for all future conflict.

For instance, Matthew Yglesias is a writer with whom I generally agree on domestic policy, but who has far more anti-interventionist views on foreign policy than I do. We sometimes fight online. One fight we had concerned a post he wrote four years ago attacking liberal humanitarian interventionism. I found this passage telling:

The basic way the conversation goes is basically that whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them. And sometimes we invade Iraq. But then whenever anyone suggests that the U.S. commit itself to following international law and not using non-defensive military force absent a UN Security Council authorization, people show up insisting that we need to maintain the right to unilateral non-defensive war in order to stop genocide. Then whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them.

It was of course not true that “whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them.” We stopped them in the nineties. Yglesias was writing as if that time period didn’t exist. The telling thing here is that Yglesias was describing the events of the Bush administration as if they were all of history.

And I think if you look at the commentary leading up to the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, you see the same pattern asserting itself. Anti-interventionists were treating it as Iraq redux, reprising every argument they wish they could have made in 2003. But Libya was not Iraq. I’d argue it was a success — not a perfect success, but a superior alternative to standing by as tens of thousands of people were massacred.

Now I understand that I have done something graceless here, diverting a little essay about my wrongness into an attack on someone else’s wrongness. The point is to try to explain forthrightly to the liberal anti-interventionists why I have not embraced their general worldview.

Anti-interventionists find this conclusion enormously frustrating. The scale of the disaster, in resources wasted and lives destroyed, feels like it ought to have a proportionate intellectual response. They believe that being right on a major event — to them, the major foreign-policy event — ought to usher in wholesale vindication, a complete sweeping out of the existing thought, and existing thinkers, that led to the disaster. I think the lessons of the failure of the war — my failure, too — need to be embraced. My reading of history is that sweeping, myopic responses to major recent events usually spawn errors of their own. The people demanding apologies today will find themselves being asked to supply apologies of their own tomorrow.

Iraq: What I Got Wrong, and What I Still Believe