The Iraq War Was a Bad Idea Even at the Time

Iraq War Mistake

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:

But even if we accept Chait’s take on the Gulf War that it was ripping good fun, how could he equate the very clear and careful planning done by the Bush Sr administration with the slapdash preparations of Bush Jr? This is where Chait really gets himself into trouble. He knew that the administration’s rationale for the war was a pack of lies. But this didn’t bother him because he came up with an alternative way to justify the war.

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “The Iraq War Was a Bad Idea Even at the Time

  1. I’m with Jon Stewart (whose show was the only thing on TV calling “bullshit” over the lead-in to Gulf War II): no backsies on this. Everyone was scared shitless of being labeled Not Pure American Who Hated The World Trade Center Bombing, so pure fictions were swallowed wholesale.

    Essentially, the war was sold to Americans as “Saddam’s going to get you.” No, no, he wasn’t. What’s the point of having mighty weapons to retaliate against anyone who attacks you? Letting everyone know you have those weapons so you don’t get attacked. If you have those weapons, you double-dare the world to do anything (North Korea does this frequently.)

    “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people.” So much wrong with that statement, used over and over in the buildup. 1: He used those hideous gases against political enemies in Kurdistan and Iran, not Baghdad. 2: Holy fuck, is using chemical weapons ONLY wrong if you use them against your own side? That’s like assaulting America’s nuclear arsenal because we’ve almost blown up North Dakota, North Carolina, and Arkansas (yep, we’ve come pretty close to doing all three) and ignoring Hiroshima/Nagasaki. 3: As the old tasteless joke has it, “we know Saddam has chemical weapons. We kept the receipts.” If we didn’t actually sell Iraq the gas, we sure knew about it and approved, as part of our stupid “Great Game” manipulation of politics in the region that’s helped no-one and harmed everybody.

    I went screaming into the Kurdish restaurant below my apartment the other day (ongoing landlord issues) and the head chef, usually very aloof, came over with a free cup of strong tea. Thank you, immigrants. You make America a better place and, occasionally, your fellow Americans into less ranting dingbats.

    No backsies on this war.

    I came home from work when the crazies bombed New York and the Pentagon. The sign on the theater downstairs said, “Due to today’s events in New York and Washington, tonight’s scheduled appearance by Salman Rushdie has been postponed.” Yep, that made sense, and I headed to a nearby bar.

    Nobody wanted war. Nobody. Well, there was one crazy guy who did, and a sage turned to him and said “an eye for an eye leave the whole world blind.” The crazy guy left. The rest of us stayed up way past closing time and danced to Roy Orbison.

    For maybe the first time, Americans saw what horror explosives do. (We’d had the McVeigh bombing, but not filmed from a trillion different angles and run in real time.) The almost universal response was to hate violence. It took a lot of doing to make that gut reaction against violence into a 50-plus-percent support for war.

    No backsies. People can say they were wrong. They can’t, they are not allowed, to say the war was wrong but they were right to support it. No way, no how.

    • Another thing about this is that it was clear as day that WMDs were just the best reason that the administration had for going to war. There were others. But after the war started, it was all about WMDs. Somehow, the society at large seemed to understand that all the other excuses were just BS. So like a court combining a bunch of lawsuits, it all became about the one thing. And they couldn’t even manage to win that case.

      Imagine if WMDs had been found. The American people had been sold on nuclear weapons. They still would be in the same place today, “Why did we go to war?” That was a big thing for me: they implied nukes, but obviously there were no nukes.

      I remember the night of 9/11, being on the phone with Jim Hogshire (who is a Muslim). And we talked about what it was going to be like for Muslims. And we weren’t wrong. Also, I wrote that day, “The real tragedy will come with the response by the United States… We in the US have a strong tendency to respond inappropriately to any tragedy.” And I wasn’t wrong.

      But since you brought up the blind world, here is Billy from Seven Psychopaths:

      No it doesn’t. There’ll be one guy left with one eye. Hows the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left, who’s still got one eye! All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong, it’s just that nobody’s got the balls to come right out and say it.

      Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but they see the trees with incredible flair!

      • Hogshire’s “You Are Going To Prison” is a book so powerful, I’ve stopped buying it. Because I know every time I loan my new copy to anyone, I’ll never get it back. And used copies on Amazon get more expensive every time.

        I didn’t see the anti-Muslim prejudice coming in 2001. I should have. I knew it would be bad for a while. I didn’t realize it would be escalating for 14 f***ing years, and spread to destroy Europe’s social safety net.

        At least there’s that “Daily Show” clip with Nixon’s conch shell, and its line I love dearly about an international law: “ratified by 167 countries, or, as it’s known, Earth minus us.”

        • Jim and I have long wanted to start to a publishing collective. It is annoying that certain books go out of print. That includes books we didn’t write like The Birth of Heroin. That’s a great book that few people but us ever got into. But we’re both a bit crazy for Barthes-like analysis. Jim’s Grossed-Out Surgeon… is also great.

          Yeah, earth minus us. Imagine what the world would be like minus us. Of course, someone will always come in and fill the vacuum. Humans are doomed.

          • @ Frank — Now I can’t find your comment about “In The Loop,” because I’ve broken the “recent comments” sidebar with over-posting. Sorry. I’ve been so annoyed by actual life lately I’ve over-indulged on the Internet, which is not a good idea.

            I looked up your original post on “In The Loop.” You said you did finish that, just not “Three Kings” (which I recommended, stupidly, and went ape about in the comments.)

            Don’t expect great things from “Veep.” It’s not a serious show. But it’s more realistic about politics than “House Of Cards” or “The West Wing” — just like “BlackAdder” is a little realistic about politics in its way.

            • I may has mis-wrote and said something about In the Loop thinking of a different film.

              I have some idea about Veep because of a little thing they did at the previous Correspondents Dinner.

              I’ve changed the comments so they go 10 levels deep. The old system was too restrictive.

  2. I remember the talk about Iraq having the 5th largest army in the world and “battle-hardened troops” from the Iran-Iraq war. And I remember Iran was sending children and the elderly into the fields and Iraq still couldn’t defeat Iran.

    My impression of the invasion of Iraq was that it was not conducted as if there were WMDs. It seemed like there was little preparation for dealing with WMDs in battle, they left nuclear waste dumps unguarded, and, IIRC, they secured the Ministry of the Interior before the Ministry of Defense.

    • And now we’re learning that vets who were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq are having their health issues utterly ignored. What a colossal human disaster for both sides that war was. Pretty much every war, I suppose.

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