The Iraq war has been the backdrop to my entire adult life. When the invasion started, in March 2003, I was a senior in high school in Ohio. I remember arguing angrily at a party with a classmate who was in favor of it. My opposition was instinctual: I didn’t like Bush, and I didn’t like the idea of a war. I can’t remember how deeply I’d read into the arguments for and against it, but I suspect … not very.
It’s now almost universally accepted that the war was a grotesque mistake. But at the time, a lot of Americans who were paying much closer attention to the debate than I was were in favor. And not just Republicans. Three-quarters of Americans, more than half the Democratic senators, and former President Bill Clinton favored the war. Liberal journalists at publications where I would go on to work—not to mention the editor of the Atlantic, the editor of the New Yorker, and the future executive editor of the New York Times—thought invading Iraq was necessary. My husband, like me, was a senior in high school, but he was the kind of teenager who spent time in the school library reading back issues of the New Republic (and interning at Slate). He supported the war on “humanitarian interventionist” grounds, like a lot of the writers at those magazines. I have used this as a trump card when we disagree about politics: I was right, all those years ago, and you were wrong. So whose innate judgment is better, hmm?
On a much grander scale, that kind of I-told-you-so has been playing out in American public life for the past 18 years. Many of the intellectuals and journalists who advocated for the war, especially those on the left and in the center, have published navel-gazing apologies and reconsiderations—although few have faced professional consequences for getting it wrong. (One prominent pro-war blogger declined to talk to me for Slow Burn but directed me to his “e-book” on the subject of his errors.) And every presidential election since 2004 has included a referendum on the candidates’ views about Iraq. Barack Obama, who opposed the war as a state senator, leapfrogged over pro-war Sens. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to win the 2008 nomination. Donald Trump, who’d favored the war as a guest on The Howard Stern Show, pretended he’d opposed the war to make political hay in 2016.
A Republican nominee casting himself as an Iraq dove was a sign of how much things had changed in the 15 years since 9/11. (Trump also said he wanted to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” so.) But many of the forces that powered Trump’s election have their roots in the failure of the forever wars. Distrust in the media. The belief that the government is incapable of carrying out ambitious projects. The militarization of police forces. Resentment at money being spent abroad rather than at home.
In Iraq, much more than that has been lost. Not long after George W. Bush declared the mission accomplished, an insurgency sprang up, one that the Americans who started the war failed to anticipate. The dominoes kept falling from there. There was a brutal civil war. ISIS stepped into the power vacuum. Hundreds of thousands of people have died—killed by U.S. troops or bombs, sectarian militias, and terrorist organizations that have thrived in the chaos left behind by the occupation, or simply because the country’s infrastructure has crumbled.
So, again, how did so many Americans—decision-makers and commentators, liberals and conservatives, erudite humanists and jingoistic hawks—think it was a good idea for the United States to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein? What were the conditions of American political life that made that catastrophe possible? That’s what I wanted to go back and figure out in Slow Burn.
There is a bumper-sticker narrative that the war happened because the Bush administration lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that the war’s opponents were the people who saw through the lie. That’s partly but not entirely true. Lots of people who argued against the war thought there probably were chemical or biological weapons; they just didn’t think that was reason enough for an invasion. And while administration officials certainly said things they knew were false, more often they manipulated the truth, using selective facts to make suggestive statements that reinforced the story they wanted to be true.
Over the past five years, the establishment Republicans who were the war’s most full-throated cheerleaders became the heroic, truth-telling Never Trumpers, and George W. Bush was recast as a good-hearted conservative with whom Democrats had legitimate ideological disagreements. The dishonesty and incompetence that informed the campaign for the Iraq war were selectively edited away.
On this season of Slow Burn, you’ll hear the stories of the people who started the invasion and the people who failed to stop it: the charming, aristocratic Iraqi exile whose life mission was deposing Saddam. The vice president who got obsessed with germ warfare and who read raw intelligence like a Twitter feed. The intellectuals who wanted to change the world and save Iraqis from oppression. The Pentagon undersecretary who was the smartest conspiracy theorist ever. The senators who wanted to someday be commander in chief. The journalists who wanted a splashy story more than anything. And the president who listened to them all.
A geopolitical and human failure on that scale doesn’t just happen because of a lie (or analytical error) about a weapons program. It happens because people let their ambitions and their fears and their big ideas cloud their judgment, or because they assume they can make big-picture decisions about the fates of millions of people without a real base of knowledge. Or because they are too scared to go against their boss, or their work is a little sloppy, or they listened to the wrong consultants, or they’re insufficiently worried about the stuff that’s not precisely in their job description. It happens because some people write memos that are more convincing than others. It happens because petty office rivalries play out on a world stage, with disastrous consequences.
But after spending most of a year reading and talking to people about the war, I’ve come to believe that failure on that scale happens, mostly, because of ego. On a personal, institutional, and national level. It’s ego that manifests itself in a refusal to believe that the critics of an idea might have a point, or that the facts might not support your intentions. And, most of all, in the notion that one country can just decide to change another, by force, and succeed.
So how did that play out, in the 18 months after 9/11? Listen to Season 5 of Slow Burn to find out.