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.

Unconservatism
I heard and read about ancient Sunni and Shiite divisions, knew of the awful time the British had in running Iraq, but I had never properly absorbed the lesson. I bought the argument put forward by many neoconservatives that Iraq was one of the more secular and modern of Arab societies; that these divisions were not so deep; that all those pictures of men in suits and mustaches and women in Western clothing were the deeper truth about this rare, modern Arab society. I believed that it could, if we worked at it and threw enough money at it, be a model for the rest of the Arab Muslim world. I should add that I don't believe these ancient divides were necessarily as deep as they subsequently became in the unnecessary chaos that the Rumsfeld invasion unleashed. But I greatly underestimated them—and as someone who liked to think of myself as a conservative, I pathetically failed to appreciate how those divides never truly go away and certainly cannot be abolished by a Western magic wand. In that sense, I was not conservative enough. I let my hope—the hope that had been vindicated by the fall of the Soviet Union—get the better of my skepticism. There are times when that is a good thing. The Iraq war wasn't one of them.

Misreading Bush
Yes, the incompetence and arrogance were beyond anything I imagined. In 2000, my support for Bush was not deep. I thought he was an OK, unifying, moderate Republican who would be fine for a time of peace and prosperity. I was concerned—ha!—that Gore would spend too much. I was reassured by the experience and intelligence and pedigree of Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell. Two of them had already fought and won a war in the Gulf. The bitter election battle hardened my loyalty. And once 9/11 happened, my support intensified as I hoped for the best. Bush's early speeches were magnificent. The Afghanistan invasion was defter than I expected. I got lulled. I wanted him to succeed—too much, in retrospect.

But my biggest misreading was not about competence. Wars are often marked by incompetence. It was a fatal misjudgment of Bush's sense of morality. I had no idea he was so complacent—even glib—about the evil that good intentions can enable. I truly did not believe that Bush would use 9/11 to tear up the Geneva Conventions. When I first heard of abuses at Gitmo, I dismissed them as enemy propaganda. I certainly never believed that a conservative would embrace torture as the central thrust of an anti-terror strategy and lie about it, and scapegoat underlings for it, and give us the indelible stain of Bagram and Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and all the other secret torture and interrogation sites that Bush and Cheney created and oversaw. I certainly never believed that a war I supported for the sake of freedom would actually use as its central weapon the deepest antithesis of freedom—the destruction of human autonomy and dignity and will that is torture. To distort this by shredding the English language, by engaging in newspeak that I had long associated with totalitarian regimes, was a further insult. And for me, it was yet another epiphany about what American conservatism had come to mean.

I know our enemy is much worse. I have never doubted that. I still have no qualms whatever in waging war to defeat it. But I never believed that America would do what America has done. Never. My misjudgment at the deepest moral level of what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were capable of—a misjudgment that violated the moral core of the enterprise—was my worst mistake. What the war has done to what is left of Iraq—the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed—was bad enough. But what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.

Andrew Sullivan blogs at the Daily Dish.

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