Should We Have Backed This Invasion?


Thanks for agreeing to participate in this Slate dialogue. I’ve invited you because you’re fellow members of what Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, once termed the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.” With the arguable exceptions of Fareed and Christopher, you’re liberals by background and inclination. Yet you decided to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq despite a range of objections to the Bush’s administration’s foreign policy. Ten months on I thought that, like me, you might be having some second thoughts about that decision. The question I’d like to raise with all of you this week is a straightforward one: With the benefit of hindsight, do you still believe that the United States should have invaded Iraq in March 2003?

Let me kick things off by volunteering some of my own qualms. I had been in favor of deposing Saddam Hussein since the premature end of the first Gulf War in 1991 for two primary reasons, which I explained in an earlier Slate dialogue. The first was humanitarian: Saddam was (is) a genocidal butcher on an epic scale, and I wanted to see Iraq freed from his grip. The second was Saddam’s seemingly incorrigible pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. March 2003 was not the time of my choosing—I would have gone in back in 1993 (when Saddam tried to assassinate former President Bush), or in 1998 (when he slammed the door on the U.N. inspectors *), or waited for a genuine emergency and a more propitious moment to reassemble an international coalition. But when George W. Bush chose to finally act, I supported him despite serious reservations about timing and method because I wanted the job finished at last.

To me, the liberation of 25 million Iraqis remains sufficient justification, which is why I don’t think the failure to find weapons of mass destruction by itself invalidates the case for war (though it certainly weakens it). What does affect my view is the huge and growing cost of the invasion and occupation: in American lives (we’re about to hit 500 dead and several thousand more have been injured); in money (more than $160 billion in borrowed funds); and in terms of lost opportunity (we might have found Osama Bin Laden by now if we’d committed some of those resources to Afghanistan). Most significant are the least tangible costs: increased hatred for the United States, which both fosters future terrorism and undermines the international support we will need to fight terrorism effectively for many years to come. Of course, the fall of Saddam has made us safer and is likely to produce all sorts of positive side effects, such as Qaddafi’s capitulation. But the diminution of America’s ability to create consensus around actions necessary for collective security makes us less safe. So, while I still think the Iraq war was morally justified, I’m not at all sure it was worth the costs.

Many of those costs—human, financial, and diplomatic—could have been reduced substantially if President Bush hadn’t gratuitously alienated so many potential allies, and sympathizers, and if arrogance and ideology hadn’t prevented his Pentagon team from properly planning for the occupation. But as a supporter of the war, I can’t get myself off the hook by saying Bush has screwed things up, because he has screwed things up in ways that were evident in advance of the invasion. This was elective surgery, and we had a pretty good idea what the surgeon’s limitations were. The choice wasn’t between an invasion led by George W. Bush and an invasion led by a president who would make an eloquent case to the world and build a credible global coalition. The alternatives were Bush’s flawed war or no war. So, the question I’m asking myself now is whether the marvelous accomplishment of deposing and capturing Saddam justifies costs that I really ought to have expected.

Because I’m doubling as moderator (and because, frankly, I haven’t completely made up my mind), I’m going to refrain from answering for the moment. My hope is that by the end of the week, the rest of you will have helped me reach a conclusion.

Let’s start off with a question for Kenneth Pollack. Ken, in your excellent piece in the new issue of the Atlantic, you conclude that our discovery that Iraq did not in fact have active WMD capabilities makes the case for invading “considerably weaker” than you believed when you argued it in your book The Threatening Storm. I agree! But does it weaken it to the point that you now think, with the benefit of hindsight, we should not have gone to war?

I’d like Thomas Friedman to respond first to Ken. After that, it’s open season.


Correction, Jan. 16, 2004: This piece originally stated that Saddam “booted the U.N. inspectors out” in 1998. This is technically inaccurate, though his actions led to their withdrawal. Return to the corrected sentence.