Many who supported the war now seem to be urging us to be forward-looking, for obvious reasons, but it is not too early to go back and review the decision to go to war. The scenario we faced in 2003 will never play itself out again exactly, of course, but we can learn something about our decision-making process and what went wrong.
To do so, we cannot judge decisions based on information we have now but did not have at the time. The commonest justification for the invasion was the WMD argument. Memorably, Colin Powell went to the UN and made a strong presentation arguing for their presence in Iraq. Those of us who opposed the war would be dishonest if we pretended that there wasn’t a strong circumstantial case for the presence of WMD. However, if you took it as far as Richard Cohen took it…
The evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise.Well, only a fool or a Washington Post columnist could think the case for WMD was a conclusive one. It wasn’t, and we must remember how uncritical the media was of this conclusion.
The point, however, is somewhat moot because the real reason the Bush administration took us into Iraq was not because of WMD. If it had been they would have given more time and support to Hans Blix and his team. The real reason we went was because the administration saw a chance to make the long bomb pass – to plant a friendly square in an expanse of unfriendly ones – in a region vital to our interests. It was the domino theory of old revived, with liberal states playing the part of the communist pieces.
How realistic was this vision? We know a lot about early stage democracies: we have seen them thrive and falter in South America, Africa and Asia for about a century. We know what are the risk factors that are likely to make a young democracy unstable. Having the foundational institutions already in place helps: an independent judiciary, a vigorous press, civil society organizations. On the other hand, a democracy is less likely to make it if its GNP is low, if its population is too heterogeneous or insufficiently educated, if the country has few democratic neighbors and no democratic history. When you look at these risk factors, Iraq scores badly. Establishing a self-sufficient democracy there was always a poor bet. This is true irrespective of the bungles made after the initial invasion.
Still, a weak government can survive if a strong occupying force backs it up. The true oversight was not foreseeing the insurgency. How would we rate the risk there, given the information we had at the time? We knew that civil strife between Sunni and Shia was a risk – we did not know enough, and nobody knew enough, to guess how likely that was. We knew that a Sunni/Baathist insurgency was possible – after all, Saddam built a regime not just on benefiting himself, but on benefiting a whole Iraqi class. But the third element of the Iraqi strife – the jihadist element – was not just a risk, it was a certainty. I cannot understand how the Bush administration could believe its own rhetoric about being in a death struggle with radical Islam and not anticipate that these guys – who after all had proven in Afghanistan years ago that they would gladly travel to fight their enemies – would not come and stir things up in Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, in Iraq they would be ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from the population.
But even if there was no insurgency, and even if Iraq proved to be a stable democracy, the idea that liberalism would spread by osmosis to neighboring countries was still far-fetched. More likely, the adjacent populations would see the new country as a US puppet rather than a newly empowered Arab population.
So how did we come to make such a gross misjudgment of the likely risks and benefits of an Iraqi invasion? Partly, it was George W. Bush. It was famously said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he had a second-rate intellect but a first rate temperament. George W. Bush is a man of a second-rate intellect and a tenth-rate temperament. Pride rather than reason is what steers him. And it doesn’t help that he was surrounded by men whose ideological proclivities are at the outside margin of our usual political discourse.
Finally though, it was allowed to happen only because of 9/11. The shock of that day left us with a sense of grief and grievance. Ultimately, our greater population as well as our elite wasn’t thinking of cost/benefit calculations. We were thinking: “if we go over there and kick some Arab ass they are going to think twice about messing with us again.” Never mind whether they were the right Arabs, or whether it was the right fight for us. As a nation, for a stretch of several months, we went collectively insane.