The Big Hole in the Iran Debate

In most discussions of the nuclear deal, the word "Iraq" never comes up. That’s insane.

Iraqis peer through the window of an armored vehicle as the last American soldiers leave Iraq. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

I have a fantasy. It’s that every politician and pundit who goes on TV to discuss the Iran deal is asked this question first: “Did you support the Iraq War, and how has that experience informed your position?”

For me, it would be a painful question. I supported the Iraq War enthusiastically. I supported it because my formative foreign-policy experiences had been the Gulf War and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, all of which led me to exaggerate the efficacy of military force and downplay its risks. As Iraq spiraled into disaster, I felt intellectually unmoored. When my sister-in-law was deployed there for a year, leaving her young daughter behind, I was consumed with guilt that I had contributed to their hardship. To this day, when I walk down the street and see a homeless veteran, I feel nauseous. I give some money and a word of thanks, and think about offering an apology. But I don’t, because there’s no apology big enough. The best I can do is learn from my mistake. These days, that means supporting the diplomatic deal with Iran.

I’m not saying that everyone who supported the Iraq War must feel as I do. I’m simply saying this: In most televised discussions of Iran, the word “Iraq” never comes up, and that’s insane. The Iraq War was one of the most important, and damaging, episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The debate preceding it pitted people who believed Saddam Hussein was malevolent but rational against people who believed he might well nuke the United States. It pitted people who trusted that International Atomic Energy Agency inspections could contain Saddam’s nuclear program against people who thought he would build a nuke under the IAEA’s nose. Most fundamentally, it pitted people who believed that the only way to keep America safe was to force Iraq’s utter capitulation, via regime change, against people who preferred an imperfect accommodation that did not risk war. Sound familiar?

Obviously, the circumstances in Iraq and Iran are different. And smart people may offer smart explanations for why the demand for capitulation that proved so disastrous in America’s dealings with Iraq is well-suited to America’s dealings with the country on Iraq’s eastern border. My point is merely this: These people should be required to offer those explanations. If a politician or pundit demanded the deregulation of Wall Street, talk-show hosts would ask why doing so wouldn’t provoke another financial crisis. If a politician or pundit demanded equipping America’s police with military-style equipment, talk-show hosts would ask why doing so wouldn’t provoke another Ferguson.

Yet when it comes to Iran, the debate is almost entirely a la carte. It’s as if there are no relevant precedents (except, perhaps, Munich). Again and again, pundits who championed the invasion of Iraq—people like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer—appear on television advocating the same worldview they advocated in 2002 and 2003, and get to pretend that nothing has happened over the last 15 years to throw that worldview into question. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which championed the invasion of Iraq (which is not to suggest, as some have, that AIPAC caused it), can mount a mammoth lobbying campaign against the Iran deal without being asked why, given its track record, anyone should listen to it this time. (Update, July 24: AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann emails to dispute the suggestion that AIPAC lobbied to support the invasion, despite reports to the contrary: “AIPAC never took a position on the Iraq war. To suggest otherwise is a complete falsehood.”) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 2002 told Congress that “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is … advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons” and that “If you take out … Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region,” can appear on Sunday show after Sunday show smugly lecturing the host about the state of Iran’s nuclear program and the Iran deal’s implications for the Middle East without having his earlier comments read back to him.

To a degree that will baffle historians, the political-intellectual complex that made the Iraq War possible remains intact, and powerful. Amnesia is part of the reason why. If Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Benjamin Netanyahu knew that before denouncing the Iran deal they’d be required to account for their views on Iraq, they might not show up in the green room. If they did, their television appearances would take a radically different course from the course they generally take today.

The people of Iraq have no choice but to face the war’s consequences: The conflict took half a million Iraqi lives. America’s veterans must face them as well: Almost one-third of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and nearly 50,000 live, or are close to living, on America’s streets. It’s only fair, therefore, that when people who championed the Iraq War appear in air-conditioned TV studios to debate the Iran deal, they be made to face that war’s consequences too. Were that the norm, I suspect the debate over Iran would barely be a debate at all.