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A Tin Anniversary For The Iraq War

I wish I had something useful to say. In the absence of one, I encourage you to read John B. Judis who, unlike myself, was wise enough to see the criminal folly of the Iraq War beforehand and not only after the fact. What’s striking about the piece, though, is the disconnect between where he […]
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I wish I had something useful to say. In the absence of one, I encourage you to read John B. Judis who, unlike myself, was wise enough to see the criminal folly of the Iraq War beforehand and not only after the fact.

What’s striking about the piece, though, is the disconnect between where he begins and where he ends.

He begins:

In the six months before the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the six weeks after the invasion (culminating in George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech), I often compared my situation in Washington to that of Jeannette Rankin, the Montana congresswoman and pacifist who voted against entry into both World War I and II.  Not that I would have voted against declaring war in 1941; the comparison was to her isolation, not with her isolationism.

There were, of course, people who opposed invading Iraq—Illinois State Senator Barack Obama among them—but within political Washington, it was difficult to find like-minded foes.

But it turns out not to be the case that there were no dissenters – in fact, dissent was rampant. It just wasn’t heard:

I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq. . . .

I had a similar experience when I talked to Jon Sumida, a historian at the University of Maryland, who specializes in naval history and frequently lectures at the military’s colleges. Sumida told me that most of the military people he talked to—and he had wide contacts—were opposed to an invasion. I confirmed what Sumida told me a year or so later when I was invited to give a talk on the Iraq war at a conference on U.S. foreign policy at Maryland. A professor from the Naval War College was to comment on my presentation. I feared a stinging rebuttal to my argument that the United States had erred in invading Iraq, but to my astonishment, the professor rebuked me for not being tough enough on the Bush administration. . . .

The people who had the most familiarity with the Middle East and with the perils of war were dead set against the invasion. That includes not only the CIA analysts and the military professors, but also the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which rejected the administration’s claims that Iraq was about to acquire nuclear weapons.

And yet he concludes:

My own experience after Powell’s speech [of wavering in his opposition to the war] bears out the tremendous power that an administration, bent on deception, can have over public opinion, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And when the dissenters in the CIA, military, and State Department are silenced, the public—not to mention, journalists—has little recourse in deciding whether to support what the administration wants to do. Those months before the Iraq war testify to the importance of letting the public have full access to information before making decisions about war and peace. And that lesson should be heeded before we rush into still another war in the Middle East.

But the dissenters weren’t “silenced” so much as ignored – and not only by the Administration. They were ignored when they testified before Congress. They were ignored by the press. They were ignored by ordinary people – like myself – in personal conversation. I remember vividly having an argument with an intelligent, non-ideological friend who opposed the war simply because he saw that the case for it was absurdly threadbare. When I couldn’t actually refute his arguments, I changed them in my own mind to easier-to-defeat straw men, the better to preserve my already-settled opinion. Yes, we were deceived about any number of matters – but we, official Washingtonians and ignorant college students, wanted to be deceived. Because we wanted to go to war.

I remember ten years ago, watching video of the first missile attacks on Iraq on the televisions over our trading floor. A friend and colleague from Brussels was visiting the office that day, and he observed the traders whooping and cheering each explosion. And his face turned gray, as he muttered something about the “Nazi mentality” on display, and I remember taking silent offense at his outrageous comparison. But nobody on that trading floor was thinking of the nobility of our cause in Iraq. They were just glad to see us taking it to the bad guys, and hard. That, most fundamentally, is why we went to war – and WMD, democracy promotion, access to oil, all the various articulated justifications were so much back-filling to an already decided course of action.

The lesson of Iraq isn’t that the public should have “full access to information” before making decisions about war and peace. The public had access to dissenting opinion and information, if it wanted to hear, as did the press that could have broadcast such views more widely, just as today the press and public have plenty of access to dissenting views on the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear program and the likely costs and consequences of military action. Access to information isn’t enough – you have to want to hear it.

No, the lesson of Iraq is that war is hell, and that unleashing hell is not just another policy option. If we haven’t learned that lesson, we haven’t really learned anything.