Ten years ago today the American military began its invasion of Iraq. Ten years on the war still incenses. Politics today is in the grip of hyper-partisanship. The GOP is blatantly obstructionist, the Democrats flailing as they try to play small ball with legislation and the economy. The rancor in Washington and in the media is poisonous. Our leaders are growing increasingly cloistered in that world of theirs, and seem either blissfully unaware of the damage they’re doing to the country, or, worse, unconcerned. It’s a disheartening time. But, I would rather see a broken government than the one that so efficiently led us into war in Iraq.
There’s nothing so dispiriting in American politics as when our leaders march in lockstep towards a stupid war, the dissenters few and far between. The runup to the Iraq War is best described by using an old and tested analogy, that of the slow motion train wreck. Even before 9/11, there had been rumblings from the Bush administration about dealing with Saddam Hussein, in a final sense. It didn’t take long after the attacks for the administration to make it clear to the public that they wanted another war.
The Bush administration was riding a wave of popularity, patriotism, and power. There wasn’t much they couldn’t have gotten away with. But, the United States is not a dictatorship. Even a powerful administration still needs a reason to go to war that washes with the public. No administration can sell a war as a power grab, or something as subtle as gaining a strategic advantage on the global stage. Americans don’t believe in war as an extension of politics, but as a necessity of last resort. That view of war is unrealistic, and unfortunately invites exactly the type of manipulation we saw in 2001-2003. But enough of blaming the American public.
The origins of the Iraq War come from the worst imaginings of an airport bookstore thriller. A group of powerful people sit in a room and decide to go to war, but why? Can’t say oil, can’t say geostrategy. As Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Defense Secretary during the Bush administration said in an interview with Vanity Fair, “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.” This statement is significant, because it shows there was never a moment when someone came to President Bush and said Iraq was an imminent threat that needed to be dealt with immediately. The administration decided to go to war, and searched for the threat after.
But Iraq was contained. Its skies were patrolled by American jets. There were United Nations weapons inspectors on the ground and they couldn’t find any covert weapons programs. Iraq was an enemy, to be sure, but it was no threat. The administration knew it had a flimsy case for war. Where many administrations would back off at this point, the Bush administration decided to press forward. They were unconcerned with reality. They believed they could bend reality to suit their own needs. Because they weren’t dealing with science, but politics, they were right to think they could do so.
Evidence for WMD programs in Iraq was supported by flimsy intelligence, but that intelligence existed nonetheless. The administration chose to ignore the strong intelligence that contradicted their war aims and focus on the weak intelligence that supported it. They trotted out speculation as fact, leaked classified information to reporters, then cited those reporters’ stories as evidence supporting the case for war. Massive internal pressures were brought to bear on the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community to produce evidence supporting the administration’s assumptions. Like dutiful soldiers, they did just that.
Intelligence was important, but so was portraying the war as easily winnable. The narrative was that we would not need an invasion force nearly as large as that from the Gulf War in 1991. We were more efficient now; a better force technologically. Also, we would be treated as liberators, welcomed with open arms by the Iraqi people. Post-invasion security would not be an issue. Over at the Pentagon, naysaying generals who pointed out that administration expectations were hopelessly optimistic were shoved out of the way. Not only was Iraq a threat, but we could take care of the problem on the cheap.
The war was a bipartisan effort. Most members of Congress, able to read the writing on the wall, joined the chorus for war. Prominent Democrats such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton both supported the war. (A then-state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, was vocal in his opposition, to his credit. Luckily for him, it was still too early for his war views to be part of a national political calculus.) Congressmen and Senators knew a terrible truth about American politics. If you’re going to be wrong about a war, it’s better to be a hawk than a dove. They knew we were going to war. If it worked out as planned, being on the winning team would be far more desirable than being a peacenik on the outside looking in. Likewise, if the war went sour, they could always switch sides after “examining their conscience” or some other such nonsense, and be praised effusively for their courage.
Then there was the news media. We have a wonderful press in this country that is much maligned by both the right and the left. It is also looked upon with deep suspicion by the people. The ultimate goal of journalists in this country is to uncover the truth. In a vacuum, that’s all it does. But journalists are people, too, and news organizations have interests that extend beyond truth. Journalists and commentators allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Bush administration, and used their very public positions to bolster the case for war. Many of them were swept up in patriotic fervor and were blind to the facts.
The news media are at their best when they are a skeptical filter between the government and the people. The fact that the news media were unable to report that Iraq presented no credible threat in a fashion persuasive enough to derail the war is an indictment of journalism’s ability to uncover truth. It’s a failure that calls into question the basic tenets of the trade itself. The news media were not at fault for the war, because if there were no news media the war would still have happened. But, in this world, where there is a news media, they became essential to the administration’s strategy for selling the war to the public. They can only be better served by remembering their culpability.
But, ultimately, all blame rests at the top.
The Bush administration, through hubris on an immense scale, created a false justification for a war with Iraq. That war destabilized the region, led to the deaths of well over a hundred thousand people, and likely led to Iran’s continued development of nuclear weapons (Iran knows that once they get nukes, they are invasion-proof). It led to a lengthening of the war in Afghanistan, and created new terror cells in the region. The war contributed to the unconstrained growth of the military budget, and ate up more than 800 billion dollars itself. The Iraq War will reverberate in the American economy and foreign policy for generations. It was pointless, and based on lies. I don’t believe it’s possible to ever forgive Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al., for what they did. Far more people have died because of their desire to invade Iraq and remake the Middle East than have ever died in acts of terrorism in this country. I don’t write such words lightly, but such is the depth of betrayal I feel at their hands. The world would have been a fundamentally different, and I suspect, a better place, had they never come into power.