How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I didn’t realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be.

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.

August Hanning

How did I get Iraq wrong?

Well, for one thing, I trusted the Germans. Those who know me will find this statement somewhat ironic, but there it is.

I trusted one German in particular. His name was August Hanning. In the run-up to the war, he was the chief of the BND, the German foreign-intelligence agency. I met him shortly before the war at the new chancellery building opposite the Reichstag in Berlin. He was spectrally thin and exceedingly sober. His briefcase was the size of a microwave oven. I pictured many consequential documents sequestered inside.

Despite his cautious nature, Hanning neither hemmed nor hawed when I raised the subject of Saddam’s nuclear program: “It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years,” he said, on the record and for attribution.

Apart from Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm, nothing did more to convince me of the national-security necessity of the Iraq war than Hanning’s statement. The BND had apparently developed a good deal of information about what was happening inside Iraq, in part because German companies, especially those that manufactured so-called dual-use products—ones that had both civilian and military applications—did disproportionate business in Baghdad. And Hanning seemed particularly credible to me because his analysis so obviously cut against the desires of his bosses. Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was vociferously opposed to armed intervention in Iraq. Hanning, in other words, was behaving in precisely the manner in which intelligence analysts should behave. He laid out the truth as he saw it, taking no notice of the personal consequences. To Schröder’s credit, Hanning was allowed to share his intelligence with the CIA, and by doing so he helped buttress the Anglo-American case for war.

He was, of course, wrong. Did this make him a liar? No. It made him an intelligence official. Did this make Gerhard Schröder smart? No. It made him lucky. August Hanning was a smart, honest man who made a mistake.

If one of my mistakes was to trust men like August Hanning, another larger mistake was to put my trust in the Bush administration, not so much on matters of intelligence—faulty intelligence was a near-universal phenomenon—but on matters of basic competence. I will admit to a prejudice here: I believed—note the tense, please—that Republicans were by nature ruthless, unsentimental, efficient, and, most of all, preoccupied with winning. It simply never occurred to me that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney would allow themselves to lose a war. Which is what they have very nearly done.

The scales fell from my eyes gradually. There was one moment, though—well after the replacement of Saddam’s evil regime by the chaos of the Bush regime—that I recall as the end of this particular illusion. I was interviewing Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the deputy secretary of defense, at the New School in New York, as part of the New Yorker Festival in the fall of 2003. The audience was excessively unruly; various protesters were ejected from the hall, some after shouting “Sieg Heil” at Wolfowitz. One of these self-marginalizing protesters actually did a running goose step down the aisle until he was tackled by police officers. It felt, at certain moments, as if we had become trapped in a guerrilla theater production of The Producers.

This is all by way of explaining that, considering his audience, Wolfowitz did a credible job of keeping his head. But he did not instill a feeling that the administration had a plan in place to manage the Middle East. The key moment came when I asked Wolfowitz whether it was possible that newly democratized Arab countries could wind up voting Islamists into power. Wolfowitz responded, “Look, 50 percent of the Arab world are women. Most of those women do not want to live in a theocratic state. The other 50 percent are men. I know a lot of them. I don’t think they want to live in a theocratic state.”

Shit, I thought.

What the world is confronting five years after the invasion—the mess that Gen. David Petraeus is attempting to clean up today—was almost entirely preventable. It’s not only my encounters, inside Iraq and outside, with senior figures of the Bush administration that have convinced me of this; the investigations conducted by George Packer, Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, and Michael Gordon, among others, have unearthed thousands—literally thousands—of mistakes made by this administration, most of which were avoidable.

Which makes the last five years a tragic waste. I wanted very much for the liberation of Iraq to succeed, for many reasons. I wasn’t sure there was an alternative to Saddam’s removal, in part because the sanctions regime was collapsing. I believed that Saddam’s nuclear ambitions posed an almost immediate threat to national security. I believed that Saddam was a supporter of terrorism. The report on Saddam’s terrorist ties released last week by the Joint Forces Command confirms this (not that you would know it from the scant press coverage of the study). The study, citing captured Iraqi documents, indicates that Saddam’s regime supported various jihadist groups, including Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, and including Kurdish Islamist groups, about whom I have reported. But read the study for yourself; it’s actually quite an achievement of translation and analysis.

Mainly, I believed in the human-rights case for armed intervention. I had spent a good deal of time with Saddam’s victims before the war—the Kurds especially—and I had been radicalized by what I learned about the crimes committed against them. I have always sympathized with John Burns’ position: He argued, at the outset of the war, that Saddam’s regime of torture, rape, and genocide gave cause enough for intervention, without confusing the case with arguments about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

My Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan and I have argued over the notion that travel can actually narrow the mind. I believe in reporting, but I also believe that I was somewhat blinded by my rage at the genocide Saddam perpetrated against Kurdistan. It is difficult to stay neutral on the question of intervention after visiting the survivors of Halabja, Goktapa, and other towns and villages that had been attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam’s air force.

This is why I find it impossible to denounce a war that led to the removal of a genocidal dictator. To borrow from Samantha Power, the phrase “never again” has in recent years come to mean “Never again will we allow the Germans to kill the Jews in the 1940s.” The Holocaust proved that the world is a brutal place for small peoples, and it defines for me the nonnegotiable requirements of a moral civilization: to be absolutely intolerant of dictators who have committed documented genocides. The tragedy of this war—one of its tragedies—is that its immorally incompetent execution has, for the foreseeable future, undermined this idea. I believe, for instance, that Darfur demands our armed intervention, but we are now paralyzed because of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq occupation.

A long time ago, I was certain that the Iraq invasion would be seen as a moral victory. Most Americans quite obviously do not see it this way. But on my last trip to Iraq, four months ago, I learned that many of Saddam’s victims continue to see the invasion as a triumph of justice. The Kurds, who make up nearly 20 percent of Iraq, remain, by and large, quite pleased with the Anglo-American invasion, which removed from their collective neck a regime that did an excellent job over the years of murdering them. This must count for something, and I’m hopeful that one day, when President Bush is gone and the Kurds are free, it will.