As far as Iraq hawks were concerned, the invasion was the continuation of a policy towards Iraq that took shape at least as far back as the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. There was broad support for regime change in Iraq then and later, just as there is now broad bipartisan backing for preventive war against Iran. The political atmosphere after 9/11 and the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq were obviously the most factors leading to the invasion, but it’s extremely difficult to imagine the Iraq war happening unless we take into account the agitation for regime change taking place in the years before 2002-03.
Fallows alludes to his own resignation in writing about the then-upcoming Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, his feeling that the war was inevitable, but he doesn’t highlight how that inevitability was constructed. It was very much the product not only of 9-11 but of the experience of the previous decade – the unsatisfying end-game of the Gulf War and the evolution of American policy during the Clinton era towards Iraq.
From the end of the Gulf War through to the very eve of the Iraq War, there was almost no serious discussion about our goals for relations with Iraq. The assumption was that there could be no goals with the existing regime, and our goal, even before 1998, was for the Saddam Hussein regime to fall. What our other goals might be were not even in the frame until that was achieved. As a consequence, war looked not so much like a “choice” as an “option” – the only one certain to achieve our primary goal – and all other “options” were evaluated in terms of the trade-off between lower cost and lower-likelihood of success.
That’s why it’s so vital that the conversation about Iran be reframed. Our goal should be normal, peaceful relations with Iran – whatever its regime. That goal might not be practically achievable – it takes two to tango, after all. We can, reasonably, debate what preconditions must be met for the establishment of such relations – for example, a verifiable surety that their nuclear program is peaceful. But saying, “the goal is peaceful reconciliation and the obstacles are a, b and c” is very different from saying “the goal is to remove obstacles a, b and c and we’d prefer to achieve that goal peacefully – but if we’ll resort to war if we have to.” The former framing makes it clear that war is in a real sense a policy failure. But overwhelmingly, discussion about Iran takes the latter form, and as a consequence the debate is reduced to whether we “have to” go to war “yet.”
I’d argue that this effort to re-frame the debate well in advance of any kind of conflict is more important than the hand-to-hand combat about specific policy options.