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The Iraq War at Twenty

Two decades after the invasion, The American Conservative will publish a retrospective series starting Monday.

Task Force Ironhorse Launches Operation Sidewinder
(Photo by Marco DiLauro/Getty Images)

Monday marks the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is easy to forget with what monolithic enthusiasm the conservative movement endorsed the Bush administration’s push to overthrow Saddam Hussein and democratize Iraq—and how much has changed in the two decades that followed.

On February 10, 2003, readers of the Weekly Standard were greeted with triumphant predictions from columnist Max Boot. The impending invasion of Iraq, Boot assured readers, would be a smashing success. “In all likelihood, Baghdad will be liberated by April,” Boot wrote, “It may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.”


The Weekly Standard is no more, itself a casualty of a political moment defined by a Republican president who famously called the Iraq war a “big fat mistake.” Max Boot, for his part, has at least gestured toward some regret for his Iraq war cheerleading. Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Boot took his turn at a mea culpa, writing, “In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking.”

Over at National Review, David Frum infamously questioned the motives of conservative critics of the war. His March 2003 piece “Unpatriotic Conservatives” reads as a Platonic ideal of early-aughts war fever. “War is a great clarifier,” Frum wrote, “It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”

In a way, Frum has been true to his word, as he no longer pretends to be a conservative. He does, however, seem to have realized that that “unpatriotic” faction of his former political persuasion may have had a point. From his current perch at the Atlantic, Frum writes this week, “Saddam Hussein’s culpability does not mean that the renewal of full-scale war in 2003 was wise. Plainly, it was not.” Unfortunately, he fails to see the irony in his “most important lesson” learned: “Crucial decision makers...isolated themselves from all contrary information—until it was too late.”

One wonders whether impugning the motives of contrarians might have had something to do with that. National Review, to its credit, is running a refreshingly diverse array of voices in its current Iraq-at-20 special issue. The war apologists remain, but are joined by fierce critics of the war, including a few alumni of this publication. “Unpatriotic” no more.

Of course, there is one voice that has remained consistent on Iraq, and all similar misadventures abroad, over the past twenty years: The American Conservative.

(Photo by Michael Williamson/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

From the very first issue, we announced a small but loud outcry against the war machine. Our inaugural cover was emblazoned with IRAQ FOLLY. Issue after issue, this publication boldly warned that the invasion of Iraq would be a disaster. We have been vindicated.  

As TAC reflects on the past twenty years, it is important to welcome to our ranks the growing number of conservatives who recognize that this magazine’s founders were right. But if we are to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of 2003, it is also important to remember how a Republican administration ended up embarking on such a disastrous misadventure in the first place—especially as war drums in Washington are beating yet again, this time calling the hawks’ attention to Eastern Europe.

So we at TAC are proud to publish a series that will examine the legacy of the Iraq war twenty years after the U.S. invasion. Starting Monday, you will hear from a range of voices on what went wrong in Iraq and how we found ourselves making such a terrible mistake. Some of the contributors opposed the war from the beginning. Some of them saw the folly of the invasion only later. All of them are wary of repeating the disaster of that 2003 invasion today.

There is a reason TAC got it right. As the series will illustrate, in different ways, our dispositional allegiance is always to America and Americans first. So I hope you will read along. And I invite you to become a part of the publication that was right from the beginning. Join us.