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.