WIF Giveth, and WIF Taketh Away (Chalabi Dept)

Much of the Atlantic's staff has been on-scene at the Washington Ideas Forum for the past two days, and I think that many of the interviews, panels, symposia etc have been worthwhile. You can judge for yourself -- see all the videos here, or follow the Twitter feed on #wif2010 here.

This morning, for instance, a very good discussion between Google's Eric Schmidt and the Atlantic's editor, James Bennet, in which Schmidt had nice nugget-like observations about what he had learned about Washington (the "shocking" centrality of lobbyists) and what he had observed about China (runs like a giant corporation -- if a corporation also had police-state powers).

But then, Ahmed Chalabi, blandly asserting that the invasion of Iraq, of which he was one of the main enthusiasts and promoters in the entire world, had always been about liberating the Iraqi people and ending the internal repression by Saddam Hussein, and that the whole WMD question had been only a "marginal" issue.

As they say: Don't get me started.

I am willing to believe that for Chalabi and some other proponents of the war, WMD were "marginal" as a real motivation for invading Iraq, and mainly were convenient as a rhetorical/political device to make the political case for war. But it is flatly false to pretend, imagine, forget, or rewrite-history-so-as-to-suggest that they were not presented to the US Congress and the public as THE reason for necessary and urgent "preventive war." As they also say: You could look it up. The falsehood about imminent peril -- or, to be charitable, the intelligence error -- was not "a marginal" but "the central" reason why, starting eight years ago, American foreign policy was distorted by the rushed decision to invade Iraq.


We just missed an opportunity to see a discussion of this on stage. Immediately before Chalabi on the platform was Sen. James Webb of Virginia -- Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, decorated combat hero of Vietnam, and someone who had the judgment and guts before the invasion of Iraq to say publicly: Don't do this; it is not in our interest; there is no imminent threat; this will be a mistake. As it happened, Webb and Chalabi crossed paths only briefly, in the "green room" before going on stage. As the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder noted via Twitter:

Sen. Jim Webb wasn't too eager to hang out with A. Chalabi in the #WIF2010 green room.

Why do I bother? After all, this is an old, settled issue. But having listened to Chalabi, I feel compelled to mention it for memory-hole reasons.

America's prospects in our children's and children's-children's time will be affected by the bad decisions made from September 12, 2001, through March 20, 2003. I made that case six years ago and believe it the more strongly now. The policies the U.S. did not adopt to radically reduce its dependence on oil from the Middle East. The hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership it did not pursue in Afghanistan as it shifted troops, surveillance, and attention to Iraq. The international support, alliances, credibility, and moral standing it squandered in the rush to war. The radical shift from solvency to deep deficit in national accounts. The entrapped presence in CENTCOM combat theaters for the foreseeable future. Not to mention the many thousands of people, from many nations, killed or disabled for life. Of course against those costs you would have to balance the Iraqis who might have been tortured, imprisoned, or abused if Saddam had been left in power. But faced with that balance -- the benefits to some Iraqi civilians, versus the costs over the decades to America -- there is absolutely zero chance that the American public would have supported the case for war.

If a prominent supporter of the war had not taken the stage to say, "Oh, never mind, that was marginal," I would not feel I had to bring it up. But he did, and I do. I imagine that similar thoughts may have been going through James Webb's mind as well.

As I write, the Chalabi interview-video is not yet posted on the WIF archive site. Check it out when it's there.

UPDATE: The video is now posted, with this description of the session by the Atlantic's Max Fisher. To see for yourself: