Hitch Defends Himself

It's well worth reading his account of the decision-making time-line before the war. It's worth it because it reminds us that there never was an easy solution to the problem of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was going to be a headache for the civilized world - and a living hell for most of its inhabitants - war or no war. After 9/11, concern about Saddam's potential for possibly terrifying mischief was not misplaced. And yes, the U.N. had been grotesquely impotent in enforcing its own resolutions. Much of what was motivating the French and Russian governments was contemptible. But ... there are obvious weaknesses in Hitch's case. Here's one key sentence that now reads a little hollow:

All Western intelligence agencies, including French and German ones quite uninfluenced by Ahmad Chalabi, believed that Iraq had actual or latent programs for the production of WMD.

That was not the basis on which we went to war. If the president had told us that he could only safely verify that Iraq had "latent programs for the production of WMD," then his case would have been far more honest but far less cogent. We were told rather that there was no doubt that stockpiles of WMD existed.  We were even led to believe he had some nuclear capacity. If the actual, unrigged intelligence data had been presented at the UN, if the statements of president, vice-president, defense secretary et al had been carefully parsed to ensure that we knew exactly the knowable risks of action and of inaction, then a ramped-up inspections regime might well have been preferable to war. We may not have achieved such a regime without sending troops to Saddam's doorstep. But that leverage might have enabled us to achieve more effective containment, while supporting Shiites and Kurds by indirect means. The threat of imminent war might even have brought the Russians and French into backing a tougher containment strategy. This is hindsight, of course. But hindsight is exactly what Hitch is asking us to use.

But the real point my friend doesn't mention is much more important and much more damning for us war supporters. The real question is: if we knew then what we know now about the caliber, ethics, competence and integrity of the president and his aides, would we have entrusted them to wage this war? Would we have trusted their presentation of pre-war intelligence? And the answer to that, I venture to guess for my friend as well, is: no. If we had known that war meant sending Iraq into a vortex of uncontrollable violence; if we had known that proving Rumsfeld's theories would turn out to be more important than providing basic law, order and security for the invaded country; if we had known that this president would unleash torture indiscriminately throughout the conflict and destroy America's moral standing in the world; if we knew that there was no post-invasion plan; if we had known all of this - would we still have supported the war? Of course not.

Some of this was our own fault - our own psychological captivity to the trauma of 9/11, our own excessive trust in a president many saw through already, our own good intentions with respect to Iraqis' suffering taken to levels where self-delusion was involved. But some of it, we now know, was also a function of being misled. Quite how we were misled and how consciously is still not entirely clear. But that we were misled is indisputable. Why more war-supporters are not angrier about this deception escapes me.

The supporters of this war therefore fall into two camps: those of us who deluded ourselves, and those of us who deluded others. They are not mutually exclusive groups. But the moral burden for this hideous, brutal war falls primarily on those in the administration whose responsibility it ultimately was, who had access to intelligence the rest of us didn't, who were privy to arguments the rest of us never knew about till later.

Yes, I am glad Saddam is gone. Yes, I believe my own intentions before the war were honorable, if mistaken. Yes, I believe Hitch's were as well - and those of many others. But we were fools not to see the true nature of the people we were trusting; and too enraptured by our own sense of righteousness to realize that we could have been wrong. And wrong we were.