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Second Thoughts on Iraq? Only Three.

As the old saying goes, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

BAGHDAD, IRAQ––Specialist Arturo Lima of US First Cavalry from Fort Hood Texas, left, and members of
(Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Unlike David Frum, Max Boot, and other enthusiasts for America’s foreign entanglements, I have felt no need to revise and extend my remarks on the Iraq war. During the twenty years since the invasion, I have not once had occasion to change my opinion that it was butt-stupid. 

But of course, I have had a few after-action reflections.


First, there was one important element of the story that I missed, even as it unfolded in front of me. I should have noticed that the pro-war advocates were engaged in a semantic shuffle. You will remember that, in the overheated pro-war view, the casus belli was that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons then became “weapons of mass destruction.” And weapons of mass destruction then became “nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.” By the time American boots hit Iraqi soil, Saddam’s imaginary weapons of global terror seemed to be no more lethal than the crowd-control agents gathering cobwebs in the storerooms of mid-sized police departments.

The lesson here is this: When noncombatant experts are screaming for discretionary invasions of distant lands, you should do your best to follow the pea as it moves quickly beneath the shells.

Second, in a perfect world, experts who are proved to be conclusively wrong in matters central to their expertise would be obliged to pay some price, if only in a diminution of their professional prestige. Happily for Messrs. Frum and Boot, that is not how it worked in the aftermath of the Iraq disaster. They have been promoted to the highest reaches of our influence establishment—to the Atlantic and the Council on Foreign Relations, respectively—where we can be confident that they are, even now, sketching out America’s next grand adventure.

The lesson here is that in the policy world, where in too many cases the losers write the history of the argument, the incentive structure is out of whack. Upside down, in fact. But I suspect that as a reader of The American Conservative, you knew that already.

Third, I remember when TAC first appeared. I heard myself asking the question that Butch had asked of Sundance, “Who ARE those guys?” TAC’s voice was so clear, its perspective so fresh. In a frantically mobilizing Washington, D.C., TAC was saying the unsayable: That the Iraq war was a mistake. That it would wind up costing ungodly amounts of blood and treasure and, ultimately and irrecoverably, both national prestige and national unity. To steal a line from one of TAC’s founding fathers: On Iraq, TAC has been right from the beginning.


Let us pause, then, to acknowledge an extraordinary contribution by a fledgling journal.

But let me now pause to accost a disturbing trend in a maturing journal. Too often in recent years, there has been in TAC-published commentary a trace element of anti-war absolutism. For some TAC contributors, the righteous opposition to the Iraq war has metastasized into a blanket opposition to the righteous use of military force. This hardening of the categories occurs at exactly the wrong moment.

As with so many other parts of the national conversation, the Biden administration has debased the language of security. We are now instructed to perceive “existential threats” from all quarters—from climate change, racial imbalance, parent-terrorized school systems, and profit-obsessed business entities. We are swarmed by these “existential threats,” all of them ideologically enabled, and we may no longer be alert to the arrival of the genuine article.

Which has now almost certainly arrived. An expansionist foreign nation, with a population four times larger than our own, powered by a manufacturing-based economy growing faster than ours and controlled by a messianic authoritarian, has declared its intention, in both word and deed, to displace us as the dominant world power. Under the law of parsimony, a strategic challenge of this kind means what it has almost always meant down through the ages. It means war.

President Biden’s response to this palpable threat, if you can call it a response as distinguished from a tropism, has been to cut the defense budget: He proposes a 3 percent increase for the Pentagon against a 6 percent inflation rate.

TAC’s response should be different—different not only from Mr. Biden’s, but different from TAC’s own precocious posture back in 2003. TAC and her readers should examine the hard facts and then draw a realistic judgment. In my own taxonomy, while Russia is a problem and North Korea is a problem and Iran is a problem, China poses an existential threat.

TAC’s friends will hope that, in the same clarion voice that announced its birth, it will now proclaim the core wisdom of political realism: Namely, that the best way to avoid war, or pre-emptive submission, is to prepare for war.


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