Knowing what we knew then, the Iraq War was a bad idea

In certain circles in Washington, the polite story to tell about the Bush administration invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that of course it’s obvious now that the war was a bad idea, but it was simply impossible in the lead-up to the war to realise that Americans wouldn’t be greeted as liberators/there were no weapons of mass destruction/the mission wouldn’t be cheap or easy/[insert your preferred catastrophe here]. This is a popular version of history because it’s an exculpatory one, and a lot of people in Washington have good cause to want such a thing.

Republicans either still endorse the neo-conservative framework that inspired the excursion and want to maintain its power as a rhetorical tool or want to avoid the ignominy of a foreign policy disaster being affixed to their party. Democrats either are embarrassed that they endorsed the war at the time or are still cowed by accusations that post-Vietnam, the party isn’t tough enough to be trusted on foreign policy. Journalists and analysts are also likely to have not applied enough scrutiny to Bush administration claims about the war at the time, and find it much more comfortable to blame duplicitous or incompetent officials rather than admit to to an abrogation of duty. Far too many people have a vested interest in misremembering the lead-up to the Iraq War.

That’s why it’s worth reading Jim Fallows’s forceful reiteration of the history of that period, highlighting the pointlessness of asking candidates like Jeb Bush, “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?” Over to Jim:

Similarly: “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?” The only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney–Bolton–Wolfowitz-style bitter-enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now” — the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs — and still say, Heck of a job.

Anyone seriously looking to comment on — or, more seriously, conduct from government office — US foreign policy should either explain why he was taken in at the time or how he’s adjusted his worldview since. Because, and back to Jim, this was the lay of the land in 2002 and 2003:

The “knowing what we know” question presumes that the Bush Administration and the US public were in the role of impartial jurors, or good-faith strategic decision-makers, who while carefully weighing the evidence were (unfortunately) pushed toward a decision to invade, because the best-available information at the time indicated that there was an imminent WMD threat.

  • That view is entirely false.
  • The war was going to happen. The WMD claims were the result of the need to find a case for the war, rather than the other way around.

It’s a point Greg Sargent makes too:

But this leaves out a big part of the story of the run-up to the war, which is that some people were arguing at the time against invading Iraq, on the grounds that the evidence was all right there in plain sight that Iraq did not pose a threat imminent enough to justify an invasion. Some people (I’m not claiming to be among them) were publicly shouting themselves hoarse, pointing out at the time that, at the very least, there were serious questions about whether Iraq really posed the threat the Bush administration claimed it did.

The question that is being posed to Jeb — would you have gone into Iraq, knowing what we know now? — is not really a hard one. As Brian Beutler notes: “the idea that the war was a mistake because of the intelligence failures — that it would’ve been the right call if the story the Bush administration told about the need to invade had held up — is quickly becoming the Republican Party consensus.” […] Rather, the better question is: Are you willing to admit that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq based on what was known at the time? Or at least that those making the case against the invasion at the time got it right, and that you got it wrong, even though you had access to the same evidence, in real time, that they did?

For good measure, I’ll reiterate what I said on the ten-year anniversary of the war:

Take the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector, 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.


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.