How We Thought, and Think, About Iraq

What did we learn, and when did we learn it?
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I'll try to work through a number of items on this topic today. Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the start of the ruinous invasion of Iraq.


1. The ongoing effect. A reader in the upper Midwest writes:

I still believe that many people, perhaps especially in Washington, don't understand what a searing, formative experience the whole run-up to the war was for a generation of Americans--maybe more than one generation. (I'm 46.) The obvious propaganda campaign, the clearly trumped-up WMD scare campaign, the bullying that was the functional equivalent of redbaiting directed against naysayers, and finally the invasion itself: This disaster transpired in broad daylight, in slow motion, with millions around screaming for it to stop. But the Beltway crowd would not stop. Who could have witnessed this with eyes open and not be terribly, terribly sobered about the state of our political system, and the trajectory of our country?

While I agree entirely with your critique of the war as summarized at the end of your post, it does focus on the invasion as a strategic blunder for the United States. Surely it was. But was not the fundamental issue the invasion's sheer lack of moral and legal justification? This was plainly a war of aggression against a country that had done nothing to us and posed us no threat. George W. Bush and his enablers made my country a rogue nation when they embraced the atrocious doctrine of preventive war, previously associated closely with fascist regimes. This is the worst of all, and for this there has been no accounting at all.

To address briefly the final point: my judgment as of the springtime of 2002, as a reporter and a civilian, was that I had no special leverage in addressing the legal-and-moral wrongness of the war. I thought it was wrong to attack a country that hadn't attacked us, and said so in interviews and on shows. I thought the main additional information / judgment I could bring to the discussion was airing the unanimous view of experts in the region, and in military occupations, that "regime change" would unleash a host of other consequences that together would be worse -- for America, for the region, and arguably for Iraq -- than continuing to exert "non-kinetic" pressure on Saddam Hussein.

IraqAd.png2. Who was right. Last week Stephen Walt reminded us of an advertisement placed on the NYT's op-ed page six months before the war began. It had the headline shown at right, and it was signed by 33 scholars of international relations.

It is very much worth looking at that ad again, and reflecting on the list of signers. Almost every detail of the case it made has stood up well over the past decade. This was its argument:

  •     "Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but no one has provided credible evidence that Iraq is cooperating with al Qaeda.
  •     "Even if Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons, he could not use them without suffering massive U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
  •     "The first Bush administration did not try to conquer Iraq in 1991 because it understood that doing so could spread instability in the Middle East, threatening U.S. interests. This remains a valid concern today.
  •     "The United States would win a war against Iraq, but Iraq has military options--chemical and biological weapons, urban combat--that might impose significant costs on the invading forces and neighboring states.
  •     "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.
  •     "Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq. War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe."

The people who signed that ad were right. They were startlingly right. The people who argued the opposite  -- Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Rice, Abrams, Feith, sadly Powell, of course Bush, much of the "liberal hawk" establishment notably and stridently including The New Republic and the Washington Post's editorial page -- were wrong. In most cases unrepentantly wrong. Yet here is the remarkable thing: in ongoing deliberations about Iran, Afghanistan, and overall U.S. strategy we now hear more often from the "wrong" camp than those who were right.

Here are the 33 signers. It is a remarkable list. Not all of them are still around -- I particularly miss the voice, company, and integrity of Charles Moskos, and I am glad to note my college classmate Steve Van Evera -- but many are. As we think about Iran and other threats, I would like to see two op-ed or extended talk-show appearances by members of this list, for each one appearance by someone who was so gravely mistaken a decade ago:

Robert Art, Brandeis; Richard Betts, Columbia; Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia; Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky; Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas; Alexander L. George, Stanford; Charles Glaser, University of Chicago; Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State; George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky; Robert Jervis, Columbia; Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh; Carl Kaysen, MIT; Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington; Deborah Larson, UCLA; Jack S. Levy, Rutgers; Peter Liberman, Queen's College; John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago; Steven E. Miller, Harvard University; Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern; Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago; Barry R. Posen, MIT; Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley; George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland; Richard Rosecrance, UCLA; Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland; Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State; Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina; Jack L. Snyder, Columbia; Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland; Stephen Van Evera, MIT; Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia; Cindy Williams, MIT

To make this impolitely specific and blunt: before the next talk-show booker, op-ed page editor, think-tank event coordinator, or other gatekeeper on public attention invites the next Bush-era veteran or former advocate of invading Iraq on to share his or her wisdom, I ask that they include some people from the list above, or others whose judgment looks better rather than worse with the passing years.

3. Failure of accountability. From another reader in the Midwest:

In order to rally American opinion towards invading Iraq, the George W. Administration needed to: 1)  reverse the verdict on Vietnam; and 2) reverse the verdict on the related Powell Doctrine.  Colin Powell was a product of Vietnam.  The Powell Doctrine mandated limited goals, quick action and the use of overwhelming force as key criteria in deciding the use of US military force.   Powell's goal was to keep the US out of frivolous, unnecessary and quagmire-inducing wars, the three qualities most attributed to the Iraq invasion!

The neoconservatives in and around George W.'s War Cabinet were busing airbrushing the lessons on Vietnam and the Powell doctrine throughout the 90s.  All those 'realists' associated with H.W. Bush and the first Iraq War were put on the defensive after 9/11 and vilified as 'appeasers' for not invading Bagdad in 1991.

The political system actually worked at holding the prosecutors of Vietnam accountable: Johnson resigned, the Church committee held contentious hearings, the CIA was 'tamed.'  Everything associated with or against the war was Big News.

But, as you said, after Iraq the neocons remain.  They are the walking dead. One reason may be the difference in nature between the two wars.  Soldiers were drafted in the '60s, a volunteer army serves today.  No one could escape Vietnam, but if you knew no one on the front lines in Iraq, you could tune out the bad news.  And although President Obama busted through the finish line (2008) because he opposed the Iraq invasion, he has not drawn sharp lines against the George W. Bush Administration and neoconservative dogma. 

So, in 2013, we face a serious situation.  The Administration hasn't presented any over-arching framework for pursuing American power or redefining the US role in the world.  It is neither a strong voice against neoconservatism or strong one for realism.  The Obama Administration read the public disgust with foreign adventures by refusing to arm the Syrian rebels.  On the other hand, in bombing Libya, it continued to tramp over the Powell Doctrine.  By expanding the use of drones, it's ushered in a whole new approach to modern warfare.  All without debate.   What happens when other countries arm their drones?  Do we need eight aircraft carriers along with precision flying machines?

There you have it: a vacuum into which all sorts of retread, base or hypocritical ideas of foreign policy have been pushed.... We are in a self-perpetuating loop.  Those who don't know do all the talking; those who do know keep their mouths shut.  

4. Cowardice pays. From a friend who was in government through the Iraq-Afghanistan era:

1. The past isn't past: Some of the worst failures in the Iraq debacle have-- by never really being punished-- become enshrined as matters of both policy and national identity.  To take just one glaring example: Abu Ghraib was the most sickening instance of institutionalized abuse by the US military to have come to light since at least the Vietnam War, arguably far longer.  Yet not a single officer was truly punished for it (BG Karpinski, who wasn't even truly responsible, got a one-grade demotion; nobody except a few NCO's served a day in the brig).  Needless to say, not a single civilian politician suffered even a career setback.  The result: Every policymaker now knows that there are no genuine limits on what you can get away with: At worst you'll end up like John Yoo, with cushy tenure and plenty of lucrative speaking deals. [NOTE: The incoming message originally and incorrectly said "John Woo," who is a film director, rather than John Yoo, the Bush Administration lawyer.]

2. Cowardice pays.  Every policymaker knew, or should have known, that allegations of WMD were wildly overblown at best, and pure fiction at worst.  This information was available to everyone with a security clearance (everything that would subsequently come out about Saddam's purported nuclear and biological programs was available: I read it all, and was briefed on it, while the war resolution was being debated; the only surprise was the non-existence of chemical warfare stocks, which were always a red-herring for Americans outside of Iraq and its immediate neighborhood).  A case could be made that war supporters were duped by neo-con hawks in the Administration and their cheering-gallery in the media-- but the information was there, and there were plenty of informed sources telling policymakers the truth.  Nobody can claim they weren't warned.
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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.

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