b) Regardless of whether you feel you were right or wrong, prescient or misled, how exactly will the experience of Iraq—yours in weighing evidence, the country’s in going to war—shape your decisions on the future, unforeseeable choices about committing American force?
Question 2(b) is the essential question, on this topic, for candidates aspiring to become president. In assessing answers to this question:
—Minus points to any candidate who tries to bluff through with the tired “I don’t do hypotheticals” cliché. That might apply if you’re a military commander declining to say exactly when and where you’ll attack. But if you want to be president you need to explain the mindset with which you’ll approach still-undefined (that is, hypothetical) challenges.
—Plus points to any candidate who wrestles honestly with the question of what he (or she) has learned from being wrong (or right) about Iraq.
* * *
Now, the little history lesson. I am reinforcing a point already made in different ways by Peter Beinart for The Atlantic, Steve Benen for the Maddow Show blog, Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and Paul Krugman in the NY Times. But it is so very important, and in so much danger of being swamped by the current “Knowing what we know...” bomfog, that I feel I have to weigh in.
- The “knowing what we know” question presumes that the Bush Administration and the U.S. public were in the role of impartial jurors, or good-faith strategic decision-makers, who while carefully weighing the evidence were (unfortunately) pushed toward a decision to invade, because the best-available information at the time indicated that there was an imminent WMD threat.
- That view is entirely false.
- The war was going to happen. The WMD claims were the result of the need to find a case for the war, rather than the other way around. Paul Krugman is exactly right when he says:
The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that.
This is blunter than I usually sound. Why am I putting it this way? I laid out as many details as I could in my book Blind Into Baghdad, and in an Atlantic article with the same name and one called “Bush’s Lost Year.” But here is a summary of things I saw first hand:
• I was in Washington on the morning of September 11, 2001. When the telephones started working again that afternoon, I called my children and parents, and my then-editors at The Atlantic, Michael Kelly and Cullen Murphy. After that, the very next call I made was to a friend who was working inside the Pentagon when it was hit, and had already been mobilized into a team planning the U.S.-strategic response. “We don’t know exactly where the attack came from,” he told me that afternoon. “But I can tell you where the response will be: in Iraq.” I wrote about this in The Atlantic not long afterwards, and later in my book. My friend was being honest in expressing his own preferences: He viewed Saddam Hussein as the basic source of instability in the region. But he made clear that even if he personally had felt otherwise, Iraq was where things were already headed.