Slate asked me to reflect on my own failings of judgment on the fifth year of the war. Maybe the day we Christans are called to atonement is a good day for publishing it. It's cross-posted here.
I think I committed four cardinal sins.
I was distracted by the internal American debate to the occlusion of the reality of Iraq. For most of my adult lifetime, I had heard those on the left decry American military power, constantly warn of quagmires, excuse what I regarded as inexcusable tyrannies and fail to grasp that the nature of certain regimes makes their removal a moral objective. As a child of the Cold War, and a proud Reaganite and Thatcherite, I regarded 1989 as almost eternal proof of the notion that the walls of tyranny could fall if we had the will to bring them down and the gumption to use military power when we could. I had also been marinated in neoconservative thought for much of the 1990s, and seen the moral power of Western intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. All of this primed me for an ideological battle which was, in retrospect, largely irrelevant to the much more complex post-Cold War realities we were about to confront.
When I heard the usual complaints from the left about how we had no right to intervene, how Bush was the real terrorist, how war was always wrong, my trained ears heard the same cries that I had heard in the 1980s. So I saw the opposition to the war as another example of a faulty Vietnam Syndrome, associated it with the far left, or boomer nostalgia, and was revolted by the anti-war marches I saw in Washington. I became much too concerned with fighting that old internal ideological battle, and failed to think freshly or realistically about what the consequences of intervention could be. I allowed myself to be distracted by an ideological battle when what was required was clear-eyed prudence.
I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides, the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.
I heard and read about ancient Sunni and Shiite divisions, knew of the awful time the British had in running Iraq but had never properly absorbed the lesson. I bought the argument by many neoconservatives that Iraq was one of the more secular and modern of Arab societies, that these divisions were not so deep, that all those pictures of men in suits and mustaches and women in Western clothing were the deeper truth about this rare, modern Arab society; and believed that it could, if we worked at it, be a model for the rest of the Arab Muslim world. I should add I don't believe that these ancient divides were necessarily as deep as they subsequently became in the chaos that the invasion unleashed. But I greatly under-estimated them - and as someone who liked to think of myself as a conservative, I pathetically failed to appreciate how those divides never truly go away and certainly cannot be abolished by a Western magic wand. In that sense I was not conservative enough. I let my hope - the hope that had been vindicated by the fall of the Soviet Union - get the better of my skepticism. There are times when that is a good thing. The Iraq war wasn't one of them.
Yes, the incompetence and arrogance were beyond anything I imagined. In 2000, my support for Bush was not deep. I thought he was an okay, unifying, moderate Republican who would be fine for a time of peace and prosperity. I was concerned - ha! - that Gore would spend too much. I was reassured by the experience and intelligence and pedigree of Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell. Two of them had already fought and won a war in the Gulf. The bitter election battle hardened my loyalty. And once 9/11 happened, my support intensified as I hoped for the best. His early speeches were magnificent. The Afghanistan invasion was defter than I expected. I got lulled. I wanted him to succeed - too much, in retrospect.
But my biggest misreading was not about competence. Wars are often marked by incompetence. It was a fatal misjudgment of Bush's sense of morality.
I had no idea he was so complacent - even glib - about the evil that men with good intentions can enable. I truly did not believe that Bush would use 9/11 to tear up the Geneva Conventions. When I first heard of abuses at Gitmo, I dismissed them as enemy propaganda. I certainly never believed that a conservative would embrace torture as the central thrust of an anti-terror strategy, and lie about it, and scapegoat underlings for it, and give us the indelible stain of Bagram and Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and all the other secret torture and interrogation sites that he created and oversaw. I certainly never believed that a war I supported for the sake of freedom would actually use as its central weapon the deepest antithesis of freedom - the destruction of human autonomy and dignity and will that is torture. To distort this by shredding the English language, by engaging in newspeak that I had long associated with totalitarian regimes, was a further insult. And for me, an epiphany about what American conservatism had come to mean.
I know our enemy is much worse. I have never doubted that. But I never believed that America would do what America has done. Never. My misjudgment at the deepest moral level of what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were capable of - a misjudgment that violated the moral core of the enterprise - was my worst mistake. What the war has done to what is left of Iraq - the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed - was bad enough. But what was done to America - and the meaning of America - was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself either.
(Photo: sectarian killings in Baquba by Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty.)
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