How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I trusted Colin Powell and his circumstantial evidence—for a little while.

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.

Colin Powell

It may be that I don’t belong in this forum. I supported the Iraq war for a mere few weeks, from Colin Powell’s Feb. 5 briefing to the U.N. Security Council until roughly the end of that month—still well before the invasion began—as Powell’s case showed its seams, as the coalition for war unraveled, and, most of all, as the Bush administration revealed itself to be (as I put it in a column on March 5, 2003) “in no shape—diplomatically, politically, or intellectually to wage [this war] or at least to settle its aftermath.”

For me, the tipping point came on March 3, with a New York Times Magazine story  by George Packer, reporting on a meeting a couple of months earlier between Bush and three Iraqi exiles (including Kanan Makiya). The exiles warned the president that, after Saddam was toppled, the American-led coalition would need to take great care to contain age-old Sunni-Shiite tensions that were sure to flare up once again. Bush seemed puzzled; it was clear that he didn’t know what the exiles were talking about. (There were two types of Iraqi Arabs? Wouldn’t Saddam’s ouster uncork the geyser of freedom and democracy?)

War, as Clausewitz wrote, is politics by other means. That is, a war is not won until its political objectives have been secured. It seemed clear, with Packer’s article, that Bush—and, as we now know, many of his top aides—had no idea what securing those objectives, and thus winning the war, would entail. It’s not that we lacked an “exit strategy” (an overrated concept); it’s that, beyond the battlefield phase, we lacked a war strategy or any kind of strategy at all.

The lack of broad political acumen, which made success seem unlikely, was apparent in the failure to sell the case for invasion to even a two-thirds majority of the U.N. Security Council (the share needed to pass a resolution in the absence of a veto). If Bush & Co. were having such a hard time managing relations with the long-established governments of not just France and Russia but Germany, Chile, and Canada, how were they going to deal with the exotic sectarian factions inside Iraq—especially when the president didn’t know they existed? A multilateral consensus is not always a prerequisite to military action. But if the point of a war is not to protect our vital national interests but rather to enforce international law (in this case, security council resolutions), the war is almost sure to go badly without the enforcing entity’s support.

But enough of how I was right. Where did I go wrong in those first few weeks when I was in favor of war? First, I put too much trust in circumstantial evidence. I was particularly struck by the tape-recording of an intelligence intercept that Powell played—a phone conversation in which one Iraqi Republican Guard officer tells another to clean out a site before the inspectors get there. What else could this mean but that Saddam had a covert chemical-weapons stockpile and that he was deliberately misleading the U.N. team? Well, it turned out (as U.S. interrogators discovered after the war) that the Iraqi officers wanted to make sure that no traces were left of chemical weapons that had been stored in that site back before the 1991 war. They were, ironically, taking pains to stay in compliance with U.N. resolutions demanding disarmament.

There is, of course, only so much that citizens without security clearances can know about intelligence data. So, another mistake I made was to put too much trust in those who presented the circumstantial evidence—mainly Colin Powell (who later regretted his role and denounced the officials who hoodwinked him) and certain members of Congress (who were entrusted with the full National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq but read only its executive summary, which omitted all the fine points and footnotes, which we now know revealed much dissent over the NIE’s conclusions).

I must confess, I was also bent out of shape by my anger at the French and the Russians. Particularly galling was French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s pronouncement that he would veto any resolution calling for war as its enforcement clause. From that point on, it seemed, Saddam knew that he could keep thumbing his nose at the United Nations with no penalty. There was no longer any hope that a shrewd mix of sticks and carrots might produce a diplomatic settlement.

But of course, Saddam wasn’t thumbing his nose at U.N. demands to disarm; he had no arms to dismantle. And, as we now know, Bush was already hellbent on going to war. All sides in this debate were using the Security Council’s deliberations as a ploy in their respective charades. Many Bush officials were relieved when the French exposed their pretense first.

Meanwhile, Saddam abetted his own destruction by pretending that he might have weapons of mass destruction; even many of his own officers believed he did. He played this game of calculated ambiguity in order to appear more powerful to his subjects and neighbors—and, in his mind, to deter a U.S. invasion. Nikita Khrushchev played the same game in the late 1950s when he fibbed that Russia was churning out ICBMs like sausages, in part to deter a U.S. first strike, which he saw as a real danger. Both tricks backfired: President John F. Kennedy ordered his own crash ICBM program; Bush invaded Iraq. There is also a lesson here for our adversaries: Don’t try to manipulate an American president’s perceptions; your cultural understanding of us is at least as shallow as our cultural understanding of you.