The Right and Wrong Questions About the Iraq War

These “knowing what we know now …” questions are driving me crazy. They should make you mad too.

George W. Bush with part of his national security team at Camp David on September 15, 2001. "Knowing what we know now," the decision to invade Iraq can be traced back to that day. (Reuters)

First some operating principles, then a little history lesson. The principles:

1) No one ever again—not a news person nor a civilian, not an American nor one from anyplace else—should waste another second asking, “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?” Reasons:

a) It’s too easy. Similarly: “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?” The only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

b) It doesn’t tell you anything. Leaders don’t make decisions on the basis of “what we know now” retrospectively. They have to weigh evidence based on “what we knew then,” in real time.

Which brings us to:

2) The questions reporters and citizens should ask instead. There are two of them.

   a) Based on “what we knew then,” how did you assess the evidence, possible benefits, and possible risks of invading Iraq? What were your views as of early 2003? This is a straightforward-rather-than-tricky, for-the-record query. It’s a prelude to the much more important question:

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.

• Four days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush held a meeting of his advisors at Camp David. Soon after that meeting, rumors emerged of what is by now settled historical fact: that Paul Wolfowitz, with the apparent backing of Donald Rumsfeld, spoke strongly for invading Iraq along with, or instead of, fighting in Afghanistan. (For an academic paper involving the meeting, see this.) The principals voted against moving into Iraq immediately. But from that point on it was a matter of how and when the Iraq front would open up, not whether.

• Anyone who was paying attention to military or political trends knew for certain by the end of 2001 that the administration and the military were gearing up to invade Iraq. If you want a timeline, again I refer you to my book—or to this review of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, which describes Bush’s meetings with General Tommy Franks in December, 2001, to draw up invasion plans. By late 2001 forces, weapons, and emphasis were already being diverted from Afghanistan in preparation for the Iraq war, even though there had not yet been any national “debate” over launching that war.

• Want some proof that we, at The Atlantic, took seriously the fact that the Iraq decision had already been made? By late February, 2002, our editors were basing our coverage plans on the certainty of the coming war. That month I started doing interviews for the article that ran in the November, 2002 issue of the print magazine but which we actually put online in August. It was called “The Fifty-First State” and its premise was: The U.S. is going to war, it will “win” in the short term, but God knows what it will then unleash.

• All this was a year before the invasion, seven months before Condoleezza Rice’s scare interview (“We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), also seven months before Rumsfeld’s “trained ape” quote (“There's no debate in the world as to whether they have these weapons. We all know that. A trained ape knows that”), and six months before Dick Cheney’s big VFW scare speech (“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”). It was long before the United States supposedly “decided” to go to war.

In the late summer of 2002, the public began hearing about the mounting WMD menace as the reason we had to invade Iraq. But that was not the reason. Plans for the invasion had already been underway for months. The war was already coming; the “reason” for war just had to catch up.

* * *

Everyone who was around then knows it. You can look it up. And we had damned well better not forget it, in a fog of faux remorseful “Knowing what we now know...” sanitized history.