Now that we’ve reached the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, it seems only fit and proper that those of us who opposed the war from the very beginning explain how our errors in judgment led us to be so catastrophically wrong about America’s signature foreign policy achievement of the 21st century.
In particular, I think we should extend a heartfelt apology to the war’s supporters (not least, the many fine pundits at our nation’s leading opinion journals) for the pain and suffering we inflicted with our frequent attacks on their intelligence, humanity, and sanity—and, at times, I’m ashamed to admit, even their patriotism.
There is no question that America’s foreign policy and media elites are the real victims here. Surely no one can deny this.
But, as a secondary matter, we war critics should take at least a brief moment to reflect on what our mistakes might have meant for the people of Iraq, if by some remote chance we had actually managed to halt the march to war.
True, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives would have been spared. Innocent children wouldn’t have been torn to pieces by U.S. cluster bombs. Millions wouldn’t have been turned into homeless refugees. Cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi wouldn’t have been reduced to smoking rubble.
But a corrupt and dictatorial regime would still be in power in Baghdad, and Iraq would have missed its chance to emerge as a model of peace, prosperity, and sectarian tolerance—a beacon of hope that now shines from one end of the Green Zone to the other, enriching the lives and offshore bank accounts of literally hundreds of leading Iraqi politicians and businessmen.
Likewise, we critics clearly owe a solemn apology to the men and women of America’s military. For, if our misguided views had prevailed, they would have a sacrificed a glorious opportunity to serve in two protracted counterinsurgency campaigns at the same time, both of them directed and fought in the finest traditions of Vietnam, Beirut, and El Salvador.
When one reflects on the thousands of Purple Hearts and other richly deserved decorations that might never have been awarded, it is hard not to feel deeply, deeply ashamed.
How could we have been so wrong? Speaking for myself, I can only say that it was because I invented my own Iraq War to oppose—one that bore scant resemblance to the real war, the one carefully planned by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, firmly backed by a broad coalition of powerful allies and other Arab regimes, and approved and legitimized by the UN Security Council.
Worst of all (and this was perhaps my most unforgivable mistake) I did not give adequate weight to the arguments made by think tank scholar Kenneth Pollack in his book The Threatening Storm—despite Pollack’s Ivy League pedigree, and even though he had served as a CIA Iraq analyst during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the spy agency went from triumph to triumph in its estimates of Saddam’s capabilities and intentions.
Foolishly, despite these credentials, I downplayed Pollack’s warnings, believing them exaggerated and perhaps influenced by his place in a cozy Washington hierarchy prone to incestuous amplification and threat mongering.
Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the war I opposed was “Ken Pollack’s War”.
If I had only known then what I know now: that Pollack is married to Ted Koppel’s daughter, perhaps I would have been able to put those doubts out of my mind.
Instead, I persuaded myself—quite unfairly—that the neocon policymakers pushing for war had ulterior motives: to demonstrate U.S. military power to allies and enemies alike, to undermine regional opposition to Israel, even (I’m tempted to flagellate myself merely for having thought this) to gain access to Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
How could I have been so blind?
Most of all, I became convinced—obsessed might be a better term—that the neocons and the Bush White House (which, for some odd reason, I insisted on calling the “Cheney Administration”) were completely ignoring the potential obstacles to restoring order in a fragmented, polarized society like that of Iraq—itself a highly artificial creation concocted by French and British imperialists at the end of World War I.
In hindsight, I’m not sure how I came by this idea, unless it was from reading the neocons’ own favorite Iraqi exile writer, Kanan Makiya, in his book Republic of Fear, in which he gave page after page of examples drawn from Iraq’s tortured past.
Obviously, I should have realized that America—with its unique and God-given ability to bestow the blessings of democracy on the entire world—could easily overcome such trivial issues.
Actually, in a larger sense, my misplaced focus on obscure historical events, and a stubborn belief that they might still hold valuable lessons for policymakers, even in the post-9/11 world, was probably the key to my entire analytical undoing.
How else to explain my perverse conviction that the sad history of America’s past land wars in Asia might have some bearing on the wisdom of fighting a land war in Asia?
Or my uneasy suspicion that the same cast of characters who gave us the Iran-Contra scandal (such as convicted criminal Elliott Abrams) might not be entirely honest and trustworthy in persuading Americans to wage an aggressive war?
Almost as bad was my willingness to give credence to the so-called military “experts,” such as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who publicly warned that while beating Saddam’s army would be easy, occupying the country would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, and could cripple the parallel pacification effort in Afghanistan.
Folly! Why didn’t I listen to Paul Wolfowitz’s eloquent, fact-based rebuttal? Or, for that matter, why did I not accept Donald Rumsfeld’s bland assurances that the War in Afghanistan was as good as won?
Perhaps if I had not come across a detailed study from the Army War College, warning that occupying Iraq would be a formidable challenge, if not a complete nightmare, I wouldn’t have been so skeptical.
The War College! An institution that wasted three decades and huge amounts of taxpayer money studying and analyzing the lessons of Vietnam. Who in their right mind would pay attention to a source like that, when they could take their guidance from Ted Koppel’s son-in-law instead? I can only hang my head.
I could, of course, cite hundreds of similar examples. Why, for instance, did I doubt that Saddam had converted a couple of glorified Winnebago trailers into insanely dangerous mobile chemical weapons labs, even though Colin Powell said he had? Surely a man who spent most of his career being carefully scripted by analysts with a vested interest in their own conclusions must have known what he was talking about.
If I had understood then that Powell’s claim was based on a mentally unbalanced Iraqi defector nicknamed “Curveball” by his debriefers, surely I would have shared the media’s universal confidence in the credibility of his impressive UN presentation!
Likewise, if I had only realized that the Pentagon intended to contract out the rebuilding of Iraq to Dick Cheney’s old company, or would rely heavily on mercenaries working for Blackwater, a company with close ties to Pentagon, CIA, and GOP insiders, to provide security, maybe I wouldn’t have doubted the administration’s optimistic cost projections—which, after all, in the end only missed the mark by a mere several thousand percentage points.
In hindsight, surely we can all agree it was money well spent, given the wealth created and the jobs provided, both in Iraq and at our national military cemeteries here at home. Ordinary millionaires—not just the centa-millionaires and the billionaires—benefited enormously. Would that the 2009 fiscal stimulus had worked so well!
I could go on, but what would be the point? What’s done is done. Mercifully, the views of the anti-war movement were ignored—despite the saturation coverage they received in the liberal mainstream media and the careful consideration they were given by both parties in Congress, and by the
Cheney Bush administration. The democratic debate may have been messy, but in the end it produced the intended result. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.
At this point, all we can do as a movement is offer our deepest and most sincere apologies to those whose professional reputations might have been slightly tarnished, or whose personal feelings may have been temporarily hurt, by our criticisms before, during and after the war.
Speaking for myself, I can only promise is that if I by some remote chance I were to be hired as a pundit at one of our nation’s prestigious newspapers or broadcast organizations, and we were facing another ill-conceived, illegal war of aggression, such criticisms would never, EVER be heard from me.
And you can take that to the bank.