Return to Opinions
My Opinion of the Moment
How I Got It Right
There was a recent series in Slate, Why Did We Get It Wrong, in which writers described as "liberal hawks" tried to explain how they could make such a terrible mistake as lending their reputations to the sales campaign for the invasion of Iraq. There's certainly nothing shameful in some honest introspection after such a serious error. I congratulate these writers for being willing to answer this question publicly. Then again, much of the writing was so shallow as to illustrate the real source of the error. Perhaps there's as much to be learned from those of us who got it right, the roughly one-quarter to one-third of Americans who never backed the invasion. OK, let's be presumptuous and say there's even more to learned from how we got it right --- or at least how some of us got it right. After all, there were 80-100 million Americans who never fell for the sales pitch and while I won't pretend I speak for all of them, I can say what I was thinking.
So here are some thought processes that avoided the biggest mistake of the century, so far anyway (Iran anybody?). Take note that none of this required hindsight, and can be applied to future sales pitches for new wars (really, think Iran):
Finally, war has to be the last option. Everyone who resorts to war says they do so only as the last option, but that hardly means they're telling the truth. Too often, it means something more like, "We won't resort to war --- until we think other means won't work," or, to be more cynical, which is normally a safe position dealing with modern conservatism, the "last option" can mean, "We won't resort to war --- until we're ready to attack." No hindsight was needed since even before the invasion, the inspectors were finding nothing and were receiving cooperation from the Iraqi government. So perhaps the main lesson I would ask war supporters to learn is that "last option" really has to mean only after all other methods of resolving a dispute are exhausted. That alone would have been enough to stop them making the mistake that got them confessing their error five years later.
- Don't accept the assumption that the government knows things they
can't tell us or has wisdom we don't have.
- The Bush administration did hold things back from the public.
the assumption that they couldn't tell us more without compromising
intelligence sources. Instead, it turned out they gave us everything
the case, withheld anything they could that undercut it. All we could
reasonably decide upon was what presented to the public. The people
presenting the information in support of their policy were also the
only source of information. How convenient. The way I like to put it is "The government knows less than what it's telling us."
- Charges weren't proven, and need to be before inflicting war.
don't need to be disproven, just not proven.
- If an administration wants to inflict the horrors of war, the
reasons for war should be proven to a high standard. To oppose the war,
I didn't need Bush's charges against Iraq disproven, just for them to
be not proven.
- The evidence of WMD and Al Qaida didn't hold up. Lots of
assertion, but not much presented to the public.
- Several of Slate's writers mentioned Colin Powell's speech to
the UN Security Council. What I noticed at the time was Powell's
repeated statement these these were facts, not assertions. The first
time he said that, I wondered why he would need to say that. After a
few repetitions, I suspected no one would keep repeating that
these are facts and not assertions unless these were really assertions
and not facts. Powell's speech was about the only time we ever got
specifics instead of unbacked --- but oft-repeated --- assertions. That
this was the best case the bushies could make shows just how weak the
- History shows those who start wars are rarely right about how
- Pick a war, any war, and almost guaranteed the side that
started it was wrong about how it would go. Examples where the
aggressor was right are hard to find. That was enough to tell me the
bushies and neocons were almost surely wrong about their "candy and
flowers" predictions, even before looking at any specifics about Iraq.
- Not every war is WWII or Vietnam.
- Most Americans know something about only these two wars. They
don't know much about even other American wars, let only wars not
involving the US, so if a war isn't like one of these wars, then we're
going to work off bad analogies. So Saddam was Hitler even if he
wasn't, because all dictators we come into conflict with are Hitler.
Maybe another war is more instructive, like Britain's war in Iraq in
1920, which indicates certain bad things could happen, like those
things that did happen. Now we're staying in Iraq because the lesson
conservatives took from Vietnam was "don't leave".
- Don't start one war while still fighting another.
- Even if invading Iraq otherwise looked like a sound idea,
history teaches that it's foolish to start one war before finishing
another. Even if the threat from Iraq was real, it clearly wasn't
immediate, but the war in Afghanistan had just begun when attention and
resources were transferred to preparing the invasion of Iraq. The
chance to finish off Al Qaida and the Taliban was blown, fighting in
Afghanistan continues, and reconstruction languishes. So instead of
having one war after another, there are two disasters simultaneously.
- Few dictators have been overthrown through foreign invasion. WWII
is an exception, not an example.
- Here's that "all wars are WWII" thinking. Outside of WWII, how
many dictators have been overthrown through foreign invasion? Contrast
that with how dictators generally are overthrown, and it appears
foreign invasion is perhaps the least effective means of removing them.
It's at least not a common one.
- Iraq was not the only brutal regime, so why did Iraq require an
invasion while others didn't?
- I wrote enough letters at the behest of Amnesty International
to know that Saddam was brutal without needing Bush to tell me.
However, he wasn't the only brutal dictator. The Myanmar junta was
already in power. The Chinese leaders who massacred protesters in
Tiananmen Square were still in power. The Sudanese regime that has
killed so many in Darfur was killing in southern Sudan at the time. So
why did only Iraq merit an invasion? No war supporter answered that
question. To my knowledge, none has yet.
- Don't trust Bush.
- OK, that sounds like a reflex, but before it was reflexive it
had to be proven as a reliable guideline, and the fact the sales
campaign to invade Iraq was coming from Bush was reason enough to be
suspicious. The "liberal hawks" and Democratic congressmen should have
shared that suspicion since they had already seen the way Bush seized
power in 2000, the connections to the corporate scandals that broke in
2001 and 2002 (remember those, the ones driven out of the news by the
sudden need to vote RIGHT NOW on Iraq?), and the infringements of civil
liberties and human rights. No American wants to believe any president
would lie about something as serious as war, but looking at Bush's
history and the people around him, could that possibility really be
dismissed? That wasn't reason enough to oppose the war, but it was
reason enough to look at the evidence thoroughly and take nothing on
Return to Opinions
Return to Home