Final Words

Thanks to all seven of you all for contributing to what has been, at last for me, an illuminating and at times agonizing conversation. All week, I’ve found myself persuaded back and forth by your various arguments. And I very much second George Packer’s commendation. The spirit of rigorous self-criticism is alive and well here, if nowhere else among supporters of the war.

For my part, I have indeed changed my mind this week. I no longer think I was correct to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq last March. That’s hard for me to say, since as I noted at the outset, I’ve itched to depose Saddam Hussein by violent means, since 1991. But Bush was the wrong president to do it, and last year was the wrong moment—based on problems I didn’t perceive clearly enough because of my impatience to see our unfinished business in Iraq finally completed.

The first factor impelling me to change my mind is the emerging picture of the dishonesty involved in getting the public to support the war. Members of the Bush administration truly thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as did the vast majority of its critics. But the administration contributed to the general misapprehension by suborning intelligence, exaggerating evidence, and amplifying unreliable data in ways that, as Ken Pollack has depicted, amount to deception. They did this because, absent a powerful fear of Saddam’s WMD, the American people would not have supported the invasion. A democracy must not be led to war on the basis of deceit, even if the unarticulated reasons for going war remain persuasive to many of us.

I don’t fault myself much for being wrong about the weapons. Perhaps I should have been more suspicious, but if Ken and other experts couldn’t see through the flaws in the Bush administration’s evidence, I don’t see how I could have. It was a very strong argument for war that turns out to have to be almost completely wrong.

The other reason I have changed my mind is that, as I indicated yesterday, I don’t think it stands up well to cost-benefit analysis available at the outset. I think that the benefits could have outweighed the costs if the Bush administration had proceeded multilaterally and on the basis of prudent contingency planning. But it should have been possible to see a year ago that Bush was going to proceed in precisely the self-undermining way he did. Unilateralism was the president’s policy. The liberation fantasy that caused so much additional damage to the already wrecked society of Iraq was the obvious underpinning of the Pentagon’s postwar plan.

Here I do fault myself, for not better recognizing the evident character of this administration. Another president might have taken us to war in a basically prudent and honest way. This one was not competent to do so. Facing a continuing tragedy in Iraq, but no emergency, we should have waited for a leader capable of reasoning about our security priorities and working more effectively with countries we need as allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

Mistake or no, we must all live with the consequences of our decision. One point we all seem to agree on is that America must stay and finish what it started. A functional, democratic state in Iraq that exerted a positive influence on the region would go a long way toward vindicating the liberal hawks. I’m less optimistic about this outcome than Tom Friedman. But if such a nation emerges, no one will be more pleased about it than I.