Are We Dumber Now Than We Were in 2003?

This time, let’s not do the even stupider thing.

Left: Smoke covers the presidential palace in Baghdad in 2003. Right: People hold posters featuring Gen. Qassem Soleimani's face and Arabic script during the funeral ceremony for him.
Left: Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad on March 21, 2003. Right: The funeral ceremony of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran on Monday. L: Ramzi Haidar/AFP via Getty Images. R: Ahmad Halabisaz via Xinhua/Latin America News Agency/Reuters.

Judith Miller, Karl Rove, Tom Friedman, Joe Lieberman, and an armada of other journalists and political figures who supported the invasion of Iraq are back on TV and in major newspapers. They are arguing that attacking Iran is necessary to eradicate threats against the U.S., that demonstrating military power will advance American interests in the Middle East, and that the Iranian population will ultimately be grateful for our intervention in its affairs. These are near-verbatim versions of the same arguments the same people made in 2003 about the invasion of Iraq, which in fact created a terrorism-incubating multifaction civil war in which thousands of Americans and many more thousands of Iraqis were killed.

It’s a nice trip down memory lane, for those who like their lanes lined by IEDs and blocked by a checkpoint at which soldiers have just accidentally shot a 9-year-old. But as a country, we’re not only reliving 2003. Much of what’s happening right now is actually more stupid and unreal than what was happening then.

For one, the president is Donald Trump. George W. Bush was a shallow and belligerent chief executive with contempt for details, but he was surrounded by people who projected (falsely, it turned out) the sort of competent ruthlessness that news organizations and pundits and much of the public associated with strong foreign policy. The Bush administration presented detailed (though untrue) arguments about invasion being a matter of national security, recruited at least some international allies to the cause ahead of time, and made a point of emphasizing its concern about human rights and respect for Islamic faith and culture. None of this prevented the invasion from being a brutal bungling disaster, or even made it look like a good idea in advance, but it gave a lot of influential people a lot of excuses to go along with it.

Trump doesn’t even provide the war enthusiasts with this protective cover. He says he is prepared to order the destruction of historic cultural sites in Iran, which is a no-doubt-about-it war crime. He also says he would like to attack 52 Iranian sites in total as revenge for the kidnapping of 52 Americans in Tehran in 1979. Lest the Muslim world think the United States had any good intentions at all, Donald Trump Jr. published photos of himself holding a semi-automatic rifle that was decorated to resemble a medieval knight’s helmet, illustrated with a pattern of five crosses used by Christian forces during the Crusades, and engraved with the word CRUSADER.

Additionally, a number of American citizens with familial ties to Iran say they were held for unusually long periods while attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada this weekend and that border agents asked them questions about their political views. Open advocacy of crimes against humanity, white/nonwhite civilizational blood zealotry, racist domestic profiling—all the stuff that the Bush administration at least had the good sense to claim it disapproved of, they’re gonna do right out in the open.

Meanwhile, the White House has already backed away from its claim that Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Friday’s Baghdad airstrike, was planning imminent attacks on Americans. After asserting that Soleimani’s death would prevent further conflict with Iran through deterrence, the administration now says it expects “a little noise“—i.e., retaliatory attacks—and has deployed additional troops to the Middle East because of the heightened danger. On Monday, the Department of Defense sent a formal letter to the Iraqi government announcing its intention to eventually withdraw troops from the country, then announced that it had been sent in error (!). And the secretary of defense contradicted Trump’s statement about preparing to destroy cultural sites.

As to where this is all heading, while the Bush administration promised a scenario of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and quickly replacing his Baath Party dictatorship with a stable, America-friendly government built hand-in-hand with grateful Iraqis, the Trump administration doesn’t even have a fantasy press secretary spin version of what a war with Iran is supposed to accomplish. There has been no elucidation, either by pro-war pundits or by the administration, of what the goal of attacking the country is—regime change, the resumption of negotiations over a nuclear agreement—or what kind of additional force it would involve if those goals aren’t met.

In sum, it’s not 2003 again; it’s 2003 as interpreted by 2020, which means more fascism and, somehow, even less competence.

The brutality and idiocy of it run so deep, they become a source of hope. Polling says that Trump is 15-odd points less popular now than Bush was before the invasion of Iraq. The Democratic Party’s anti-war caucus, led by presidential co-front-runner Bernie Sanders, is much stronger and more confident than it was then. Social media has made public discourse more egalitarian, and the mainstream pro-war figures mentioned above have already been deluged with disbelief and outrage. Talking points about Iran’s support for terrorism should have less punch after the Iraq war and Libya intervention demonstrated that killing even the most depraved and destructive foreign leaders is not always a net “win” for the good guys.

The case for continuing to attack Iran is pre-discredited not just by recent events but by the records of the president and advisers making it, who, in a departure from American history, have managed to squander their reputations and bipartisan mandate before trying to launch their quagmire war. There is obviously no good reason to do it, and there are not even bad, political reasons to let it happen. Could that be enough, this time, to keep it from happening?