I committed four cardinal sins around the Iraq war.

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March 21 2008 12:16 PM

How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I seriously misjudged Bush's sense of morality.

Editor's Note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, "Why did we get it wrong?" We have invited contributions from the best-known "liberal hawks"—and others—many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week. Read the rest of the contributions.

I think I committed four cardinal sins.

Historical Narcissism
I was distracted by the internal American debate to the occlusion of the reality of Iraq. For most of my adult lifetime, I had heard those on the left decry American military power, constantly warn of quagmires, excuse what I regarded as inexcusable tyrannies, and fail to grasp that the nature of certain regimes makes their removal a moral objective. As a child of the Cold War and a proud Reaganite and Thatcherite, I regarded 1989 as almost eternal proof of the notion that the walls of tyranny could fall if we had the will to bring them down and the gumption to use military power when we could. I had also been marinated in neoconservative thought for much of the 1990s and seen the moral power of Western intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. All this primed me for an ideological battle that was, in retrospect, largely irrelevant to the much more complex post-Cold War realities we were about to confront.

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When I heard the usual complaints from the left about how we had no right to intervene, how Bush was the real terrorist, how war was always wrong, my trained ears heard the same cries that I had heard in the 1980s. So, I saw the opposition to the war as another example of a faulty Vietnam Syndrome, associated it entirely with the far left—or boomer nostalgia—and was revolted by the anti-war marches I saw in Washington. I wasn't wrong about some of this. Some of those reflexes were at work (which is why I find Obama's far more pragmatic opposition so striking in retrospect). I became much too concerned with fighting that old internal ideological battle and failed to think freshly or realistically about what the consequences of intervention could be. I allowed myself to be distracted by an ideological battle when what was required was clear-eyed prudence.

Narrow Moralism
I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides (the one point in favor I did not put a question mark over was the existence of stockpiles of WMD!), the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and the righteousness of this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in a truly serious moral argument. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.

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