The War in Iraq and the Wisdom of Hindsight

Iraq has become a crippling liability for George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The president's standing in the opinion polls has slumped: More than 60 percent of Americans, according to the most recent surveys, believe he is mishandling the war. Election-forecasting models that predict the outcome from the state of the economy (and fairly reliably, too, in the past) are calling for a Bush landslide in November. Thanks to Iraq, though, it looks as if the contest will be close.

Blair is in just as much trouble. The prime minister's personal ratings have crashed, dragging the government's numbers down with them. Lately the Labor Party's main topic of conversation has been the succession. Blair will have to go, most Labor members of Parliament seem to agree. His successor, Gordon Brown, has been all but anointed. Right now, the only question is whether the change happens before or after the next election. (The likely answer is after, mainly because Brown and his supporters want Iraq to fade before Blair hands over power.)

Both leaders acknowledge recent setbacks but claim that the coalition is winning in Iraq. It is a barely credible claim: Too much has gone too badly wrong. Still, it may be good that they are continuing to put on brave faces. It signals commitment, after all—and that, despite everything, is still the right policy.

The United States and Britain have taken on a grave responsibility. They must not shirk it now. They must do all they can to make a success of their intervention in Iraq. The task is not yet hopeless. A stable, prosperous, and democratic post-Saddam Iraq can still be achieved—and a prize so great would justify the human and other costs, heavy as they may be, that have already been incurred.

If America and its allies are going to stay the course in Iraq, their leaders can hardly admit that the intervention was a mistake in the first place. But other advocates of the war cannot claim the same license. They owe the people they debated before the war an honest answer to the question, "So, now do you admit that you were wrong?"

Advocates of the war, such as myself, could say yes to that question and still believe (as even the people who were against the war from the beginning ought to believe) that starting from here, the only honorable course is to persevere, that to quit now and leave Iraq to its fate would be wrong. We armchair champions of the war could take that position, even if political necessity forbids Bush and Blair to do the same. My answer to the question is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we advocates of the war were indeed wrong. But it is important to be clear about exactly how we were wrong.

By itself, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction made the venture, with hindsight, a mistake. Iraq's supposed WMD were not the only reason for attacking Saddam, but they were a main reason. Blair laid especially heavy emphasis on the issue, partly because he saw this as the best way to secure United Nations backing for the attack. Bush relied much less on this argument, but remember that in the weeks before the war, the president, too, made it clear that if Iraq could account for its earlier stocks of WMD and convince the world that the weapons had been destroyed, there would be no war. However much Bush might have wanted to remove Saddam, he would have been forced to abandon that aim if it had been plainly demonstrated that Iraq no longer had any WMD.

Many of Bush's critics in America and Europe want to believe that he and his allies just lied about this—saying the war was about disarming Iraq, while knowing that there were no WMD. By every plausible account, this is not true. The coalition governments did exaggerate the reliability of the evidence on WMD; to that extent, they did mislead people. But they believed the WMD threat was real. Even governments opposed to the war—France is a case in point—were being told by their intelligence agencies that Iraq had WMD.

In that sense, Bush and Blair made the case for war in good faith. For future historians, the two great challenges will be to explain the catastrophic failure of intelligence before the war and the fact that Saddam chose not to demonstrate that he had no WMD, when that was all he needed to do to avert his own destruction. Bush and Blair will not go down in history as liars—not, at any rate, for what they said about Iraq's WMD.

Even if the failure to find WMD were the only thing to have gone wrong, it would have been enough, with hindsight, to shift the balance of pros and cons against the war—but much else has gone wrong as well. Postwar planning was weak. Too few resources were committed to the task. And resistance to the occupation was stronger than expected. As a result, the coalition forces have been unable to provide security, the necessary condition for everything else the coalition wants to see happen, from functioning democratic institutions to investment and economic recovery.

Were these mistakes inevitable? If so, the case for war was weaker at the outset than the advocates made out. In my view, the answer is no: Most of these errors were avoidable. If Bush and his advisers and allies had done their preparatory work better, and if they had been willing to commit the needed resources, the postwar phase would have gone better.

The greatest blow to the hopes of most advocates of the war, however, has not been the postwar errors of planning and tactics, and not even the failure to find WMD, but the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the shifty response of the administration to those revelations. It is difficult to exaggerate the lasting damage those images have caused. In the eyes of the world, they make a mockery of America's claims to have removed Saddam in the name of liberty and democracy.

It is difficult to think of a better gift for America's enemies than those revolting abuses, and the photographic record that allowed all the world to watch. But the administration then made things worse by its slow and grudging reaction. Even this week, the president, announcing that the prison at Abu Ghraib will be demolished, said it had become "a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops."

Wrong. Abu Ghraib is not a symbol of what a few Americans did. However unfairly or inaccurately, but no less powerfully for that, it has become for America's enemies a symbol of the hypocrisy of America itself, of the contempt the United States and its allies feel for the very people they claim to be defending.

Administration officials are still responding to questions about Abu Ghraib with rhetorical questions: "Where was the international outrage over the far worse abuses committed by Saddam's regime?" Yes, of course, Saddam's torturers did infinitely worse things, and on a massively wider scale. But talk about missing the point: Does the administration want America to be judged by those standards?

Rather than responding so defensively, the administration should have been moved by the same revulsion that was felt elsewhere in America and around the world. Whether or not Donald Rumsfeld was directly responsible for the instructions that led to those abuses—and the administration's denials of those charges have so far been less than convincing—the secretary of Defense should have resigned, or been fired, over this. Even so dramatic a gesture of remorse at what had happened would have had only a limited effect in restoring America's reputation. But to do less than that, to respond as the administration has, has compounded the problem.

Again, opponents of the war are entitled to ask whether this setback—like the postwar mess, in their view—could have been predicted all along. Certainly, the risk that such abuses might happen could and should have been seen. Thought should have been given to ensuring that no such thing could happen. Even if the abuses were not expressions of a deliberate, deplorable policy, they were an avoidable failure of discipline. In either case, the poor prosecution of postwar policy in Iraq has needlessly subtracted from the good that the war has done, and might yet do.

The war was started for reasons that looked sound at the time. History's verdict might still be that it was a good war to have fought. In any event, the allies must continue to work in the hope of that eventual success. But can anybody seriously argue that, knowing what they now know about the unfolding of events in Iraq, the allies would willingly do the same thing again? Sadly, when you recall that the West still has enemies that may need to be confronted in future, the answer is no.