In recent days, two debates have broken out in the American media about Iraq. The first is about the wisdom of renewed military intervention to halt, or roll back, the gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The second is about whether policymakers and pundits who supported invading Iraq in the first place have the standing to advocate going to war there again. Not surprisingly, hawks generally consider debate number two a diversion, and have tried to forestall it with comments like, “Regardless of what anyone thinks of going into Iraq in 2002 …” and “Now is not the time to re-litigate … the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” Not surprisingly, doves generally believe that conducting debate number one without debate number two is like going into surgery without inquiring why the doctor who’s about to cut you open botched the operation the first time.
I think the doves are right, with one caveat. One of the most frustrating aspects of American foreign-policy discourse is the fact that it takes place a la carte. A crisis emerges, a familiar group of commentators appear on TV to discuss it, and they present their comments with a kind of virginal, pre-lapsarian innocence, as if nothing they said before is of any relevance. This isn’t only a problem because their past opinions may have been wrong. It’s also a problem because their past opinions may conflict with the ones they’re offering today. In the real world, America’s military capacity and diplomatic leverage are limited, which creates difficult tradeoffs. Take an ultra-hard line against Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and it may become harder to win Russia’s backing for continued sanctions against Tehran. Bomb Iran and it may become harder, both logistically and politically, to also bomb Iraq (starve the government of revenue with big tax cuts and you may find it harder to do either). The a-la-carte nature of foreign-policy punditry prevents commentators from having to confront those tradeoffs, which allows uber-hawks like Bill Kristol and John McCain to urge the most aggressive response to each successive crisis without explaining how America can go to DEFCON 1 against all its adversaries at the same time.
Doves are right that when offering their views on the foreign-policy topic du jour, pundits should be confronted with the views they offered in the past, especially when discussing the same country. Simply knowing such questions were coming, I suspect, would make folks like Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer, and Dick Cheney—all of whom have publicly criticized Obama’s Mideast policies in recent weeks—think twice before accepting interview requests. It’s certainly had that effect on me. Earlier this week, I was asked to go on TV to discuss Iraq. After some noodling, I decided the only way to do so ethically would be to explain, as a preface to my first answer, that I had supported invading Iraq in 2003 and been egregiously wrong. I still did the interview, but it was harder that way.
Still, saying that Iraq hawks should have to squirm their way through debate number two before getting to debate number one is different than saying, as Paul Waldman recently did in The Washington Post, that “On Iraq, let’s ignore those who got it all wrong.” In fact, the two positions are antithetical. You can either ignore the people who got Iraq wrong or you can ask them tough, searching questions about why they got it wrong. Doing the latter brings past debates to bear on present ones, and helps clarify what our disastrous 2003 intervention can teach us about intervention today. Doing the former offers no such opportunity at all.
Which brings me to the caveat. Part of the rationale for giving people who got Iraq wrong last time the chance to explain why this intervention is different is that they may be right. Supporting the Iraq invasion was an unusually big mistake, but sooner or later, almost everyone who offers opinions about war makes mistakes. Ted Kennedy opposed overthrowing Manuel Noriega. Colin Powell opposed the Gulf War, as did most Democrats in Congress. Jimmy Carter thought it such a bad idea that he urged other nations to reject authorization for force at the UN. Michael Moore opposed NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo. The Nation called it a “careless, cowardly and destructive war.” In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, in fact, some hawks did exactly what Waldman is doing now. They urged the public to “ignore those who got it all wrong” when they opposed successful military actions in the 1990s.
If accurately forecasting the last war were a reliable guide to accurately forecasting the next one, foreign policy would be a lot simpler. In fact, American history is littered with people who looked prescient one moment and foolish the next: critics of World War I who therefore opposed American entry into World War II; champions of World War II who therefore supported America’s war in Vietnam; champions of the Balkan interventions who therefore supported America’s invasion of Iraq.
The point is that everyone—whether they got the last war right or not—should approach the next one with humility. Everyone should answer for his or her past mistakes but no one should be written out of the debate because of them. Judging by the past century of American foreign policy, it’s precisely when people are most confident history has proven them right that they’re most likely to be wrong.