Paul Krugman summarized three different articles discussing this whole business about the Iraq War and if Jeb Bush would have gone to war knowing what we know now, Blinkers and Lies. There are three parts. First: there weren’t intelligence failures, there were cherry picking “failures.” Second: it was obvious there was no need to go to war even at the time. And third: most of the Washington Elite Consensus wanted and pushed for the war. I’ve written about all of these things over the years. Let me go over them briefly.
The thing about the intelligence failures is particularly noxious, because we know that isn’t true. I read Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies when it was published in 2004. And one of the big revelations in it was that the senior Bush administration all wanted to attack Iraq on that very day: 11 September 2001. There supposedly weren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And Clarke was told to find a connection to 9/11. And this was followed by a year and a half of Bush and company constantly combining Iraq and 9/11. As far as I recall, they never explicitly said there was a connection — they just implied it. And that was a choice. If they had been explicit, the media would have had to counter the claim. By implying it, the administration could treat anyone questioning them as conspiracists.
On the other side of it, we have John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who both voted for the authorization to use force. This is always presented as an argument that everyone was mistaken. But Kerry and Clinton didn’t vote for that war because of the intelligence. They voted for the war because they were both planning to run for president and they thought if they didn’t vote for the war, they would be dismissed as hippies. It’s interesting that conservatives have no problem labeling both of them as craven politicians who will say and do anything to get elected, but then run to them claiming that their votes prove that everyone was mistaken about the intelligence.
What has most bugged me over the years is the second issue. This is because I spent the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 working from home. So I listened to NPR all the time. Unlike the imaginations of conservative minds, NPR is incredibly middle-of-the-road. But in the case of the Iraq War, they were part of the Washington Elite Consensus. There was very little reporting that questioned the rationale or the practicality of it. Certainly I did not fail to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But I noticed two things that made that irrelevant. First, the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq likely had were nothing like what was being presented. It didn’t have nuclear weapons. So maybe it had some chemical weapons. So what?! I remember thinking back on the coverage leading up to the Persian Gulf War. There was constant discussion of Iraq having “the fifth largest army in the world!” As though that meant anything. And there was also talk about this really big cannon that it had. I knew that the media would present things that were true but also deeply misleading.
Second, it was clear that the Bush administration was going to war. All that was going on in the lead up was them selling it and rationalizing it to the international community. Really: you have to be singularly obtuse about human nature not to have seen that. The narrative that the mainstream media provided was that 9/11 had made Bush see that he couldn’t just stand by watch “rouge regimes.” That didn’t even make sense. It wasn’t a government that attacked us on 9/11. The reality, of course, was that 9/11 had allowed Bush to do something he and most of his advisers had been wanting to do for decades.
As for the third issue, of course the Very Serious People were for war. They always are. Just as in economics, making the poor suffer is how you show you are Serious, in foreign affairs, you show you are Serious by sending away young people to die — killing countless others in the process. But I’m more interested in the way that liberals facilitated the war. In the past, I’ve written about Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait. As I wrote two years ago:
This was an extremely popular way to support the Iraq War. Chait is not alone by a long shot. But this is faulty reasoning. One must assume that the administration is providing the best rationale for war. They have the best information access, after all. If that case is weak, then coming up with your own is nothing but an exercise in apologetics. The administration’s case for war is the case for war. Any other arguments are simply your own justification for supporting the administration.
And this gets to my primary problem with all of these pseudo-mea culpas: they aren’t mea culpas. They are justifications for why support for the war was reasonable or at least understandable. When an administration is recklessly pushing us into war, it is no less reckless to follow them — regardless of the justification. It was clear at the time that the administration was hell bent on going to war. If that doesn’t cause a person to call for restraint, what will?
This is typical of all those who aren’t hardcore neocons. They want to have it both ways. They want to admit that the war was a bad idea, but that they weren’t wrong to think that it was at the time. But of course, they were wrong to be in favor of the war at that time. Just the same, the rest of us who were right are discounted because we are just against war. So in the mainstream media, there are only two kinds of people: those who were wrong about the Iraq War (Who coulda known?!) and those who were right but only because they are anti-war ideologues. Thus, the only people who are worth listening to are those who were wrong about the Iraq War. The fact that most of us who were against the Iraq War are not categorically against war doesn’t matter. They know we are — just like they knew that the Iraq War was a good idea.