As We Near the 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War

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 over 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. 

FiftyFirst.jpeg
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 begin 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 even 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 invasion's early phase.

2) Accountability. For a decade or more after the Vietnam war, the people who had guided the U.S. to disaster decently 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. In his post-presidential reticence George W. Bush has been an honorable exception. 

I don't say these people should never again 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, not to mention its feasibility. It would be good to hear from more of them, ten years on.

5) Threat inflation. As I think about 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 now warning stridently about the threat from Iran 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 harder 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  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 too 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 own 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 would be different from NATO-style treaty obligations for mutual defense.

There is more ahead about Israeli, Iranian, and American negotiating strategies, but this is enough for now. It's also as much as I can manage before recovering from the flight from DC to Beijing.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In