On opposing the war in Iraq

Ten years ago today, the United States invaded Iraq, with demonstrative — albeit militarily insubstantial — support from Australia. Like many others, I now think it was a bad decision. Unlike many others, I thought it was a bad decision ten years ago, as well.

Dissent was more common in Australia than the US, and though some of that dissent came from left-wingers liable to mistrust American foreign policy by mere dint of it being American, many of us were honest observers who looked at the statements coming from Washington, looked at the situation on the ground, and saw that something wasn’t adding. I loved America and thought the war, spearheaded by the self-assured claque lead by President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, was a betrayal of what I loved about the country.

To hear the reformed hawks tell it, voices like mine didn’t exist. Those who have since recanted on their support like to tell a tale of their being duped by the duplicity of the war’s neo-conservative masterminds, without really acknowledging that the arguments made by the masterminds were never that strong to begin with. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, although self-reflective, sounds part reluctant tagalong and part lost naif in his recounting of the period leading up to the war:

Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke eloquently about Saddam’s appalling crimes against the Iraqi people. But countries rarely fight big, expensive wars for the benefit of others. Everything depended on the evidence that Iraq was acquiring a dangerous arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. How solid was that evidence? Those of us without high security clearances could never truly know. We had to rely on those we trusted—like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who warned on January 10, 2003, “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly Saddam can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Such assurances by the leading figures in the Bush administration won the support of a broad array of Americans, not only conservatives but “liberal hawks” in Congress and the press, and not only in this country but around the world.

This would be a better story if there weren’t eminently trustworthy people telling a much more complicated story. Take the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, who had been in charge of determining whether Iraq was complying with UN restrictions. On the day of the invasion, March 20, 2003, (it began March 19, US time), the Sydney Morning Herald reported comments Blix had made the previous day in New York:

Outside the meeting, Dr Blix said that it “was not reasonable” for the US to end UN inspections in Iraq when the regime was co-operating more than it had in more than a decade.

“I don’t think it is reasonable to close the door on inspections after 3 months,” he said.

To give a full picture, the article also reports:

Meanwhile, the UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, told the council on Tuesday that he did not know whether the US and Britain would find weapons of mass destruction if they invaded Iraq, but said Iraq’s weapons experts would possibly speak “more freely” if Saddam Hussein was deposed.

Dr Blix said “lots of things” remained unaccounted for, including 10,000 litres of anthrax and 6500 chemical bombs. There was “no way of knowing” what happened to them.

Blix also said he doubts Iraq would use biological or chemical weapons against the US, even if it had them. Clearly, he did not know whether Saddam Hussein did have the weapons of mass destruction the US said he did, but he was the guy in charge of finding out, and he thought there was sufficient doubt of the question and enough progress being made on inspections that it was worth continuing them. But the Bush administration, in its arrogance and its contempt for international governance, did not credit his perspective. They preferred to talk of slam-dunks and mushroom clouds.