How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I believed the groupthink and contributed to it.

Editor’s Note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, “Why did we get it wrong?” We have invited contributions from the best-known “liberal hawks,” many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week.  Read the rest  of the contributions.

“I got it all wrong” is not a phrase that springs lightly to the lips of the commentariat. So, let me first of all applaud those who’ve had the guts to participate in this week’s symposium. Several who declined our invitation were busy or otherwise committed—I understand. But a number of the original liberal hawks have continued to make lazy circles in the sky, without acknowledging, here or elsewhere, how their views on Iraq have changed since 2002.

This isn’t just a matter of fessing up to error. It’s incumbent upon those of us who blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade to try to understand our mistake—and to try to learn something from it. By this I don’t mean that we should know to reject all proposed American military action in the future. One theme that has emerged in this discussion is the hazard that those who wrongly supported one intervention will flinch too reflexively from another that deserves our support. I share this concern. The tendency to relive the last war is as prevalent among writers as it is among generals.

My own mistake was straightforward. I hated Saddam Hussein and loved the idea that my country could aid his victims. But the reason I thought we should go to war was what I called Saddam’s “relentless drive to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.” I thought he had WMD, and I thought there was a strong chance he’d use them against the United States or one of our allies. Because I thought I understood his pattern of behavior, it didn’t occur to me that Saddam might have given up his pursuit. Had I known Iraq had no active nuclear program, I wouldn’t have supported an invasion. In this case, as opposed to active genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, I don’t think the humanitarian case was sufficient. And indeed, had we as a country known that Saddam had abandoned his nuclear ambitions, there would have been no issue of going to war. Had they known the truth, I don’t think Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld would have pressed the case. Wolfowitz—maybe.

So, the first thing I hope I’ve learned from this experience of being wrong about Iraq is to be less trusting of expert opinion and received wisdom. This has been a hard pill to swallow, because I think of myself as someone who tries to challenge groupthink. In this case, I amplified the collective delusion. When it came to a scientific and technical question, where much of the evidence was secret, and where the consensus was widespread, I accepted an unwarranted assumption. I’m not sure it would have been possible without security clearance to recognize that sanctions were working and that Saddam had given up his WMD programs. But there were at least a few people who publicly challenged the evidence and who deserved more of a hearing than I gave them. I should have taken Hans Blix’s doubts more seriously. I should have listened to what Scott Ritter had to say, instead of dismissing him as a stooge for Saddam. When it comes to continuing debates about the weapons capabilities of Iran and North Korea, I resolve to accept nothing on faith (including the NIE saying Iran has dropped its weapons program).

Another lesson is that if I’m going to advocate occupying another country, I’d damned well better learn something about its history and culture. Were I part of the generation that lived through Vietnam, I might have avoided this blunder. Sure, I’d read a few books about Iraq, the most terrifying of which was Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear. I knew that Iraq was an artificial construction dating from 1914 and that Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds didn’t always play nicely together. But I didn’t comprehend how artificial or how deeply damaged the country was by decades of totalitarianism. I didn’t focus on regional implications, such as how deposing Saddam would advantage Iran.

Sometimes—as in Afghanistan—we may not have the luxury of learning before we leap. But in Iraq, the only deadline was the artificial one of a president’s impatience. Would that he had the ability to acknowledge his errors in the way my estimable colleagues have their infinitely smaller ones this week.