What is the enduring lesson of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration overestimated and, in some cases, exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Some say it's to be skeptical of government officials who are making the case for war.
I say the legacy should be skepticism toward government officials, period—all of them. Their hidden agendas can shade the case for peace as well as war, which might explain why there's no consensus among so-called experts about the threat posed today by ISIS.
On a scale of zero to panic, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, set the dial on apocalypse when he described the Islamic State as having "end-of-days vision." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS "an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else."
Less alarming were the likes of Rear Adm. John Kirby, who said ISIS did not have "the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland." National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olson said that "we have no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the United States."
President Obama initially dismissed the Islamic State as a "JV team" that could be "managed," and more recently called ISIS a threat to the United States that must be eradicated.
What should be made of the contradictions? Some people understandably assume that the U.S. government, aided by a compliant media, is overselling the threat. Appearing on CNN's Reliable Source, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel said there is a "trivialization—a tabloidization of news coverage that has infected and affected" the way global news is presented.
According to this school of thought, evidence of a successful propaganda campaign lies in polls showing that 90 percent of Americans consider ISIS a serious threat. In other words, the American people are lemmings. How arrogant.
My fight is with the small number of people—hawks and doves alike—who've already hardened their views on the nature of the ISIS threat and the best way to confront it, and who cherry-pick officials' assessments to support their biases.
To dismiss ISIS, you must put extraordinary stock in assurances that the United States won't get hit. There are a few problems with that logic. First, the U.S. intelligence community allowed political pressure from the Bush White House to shape its analysis of Iraq. Shouldn't we at least consider the possibility that nudges from a dovish White House might shade its case on ISIS?
Second, the lack of evidence about an "imminent threat" doesn't mean there won't be one. Surprise attacks are always, well, a surprise.
Finally, there is the matter of lying eyes: Americans saw ISIS gobble up gobs of the Middle East, butcher two U.S. journalists, and recruit terrorists with U.S. passports. And yet, initially, the president seemed to shrug it off. It's possible that Obama's disconnect scared Americans more than Hagel's words, or the thousands of media stories.
Even so, that is no excuse to overreach. To blindly trust Hagel, Dempsey, or the sky-is-falling punditry is to forget what happened in 2003. The media, in particular, needs to press for more information about ISIS's capabilities and plans. Reporters also need to challenge the president's response to ISIS, which will likely evolve along with the threat.
For now, count me among the people generally supportive of Obama's approach: U.S. air strikes backing an international coalition of ground troops. I'm glad that he's thinking through this complex situation, but I have my doubts.
I worry when Obama looks weak and indecisive, when he takes options off the table publicly ("no ground troops"), and when he seizes upon an option he recently called a "fantasy" (arming Syrian rebels). I wonder what happens if the coalition doesn't come together, if the public goes wobbly on its anger toward ISIS, or if, God forbid, a U.S. soldier is captured in Iraq or Syria.
What sticks with me from 2003? The enduring importance of questioning government leaders, Republicans and Democrats, whether they're waging war or wanting peace.