Forget what I got wrong. Why did Mary McGrory and Barack Obama get Iraq right?

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March 20 2008 6:55 AM

How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

Wrong question. How did Mary McGrory and Barack Obama get Iraq right?

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," 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.

Mary McGrory. Click image to expand.
Mary McGrory

How did I get Iraq wrong?

I was a Johnny-come-lately to supporting the Iraq war, persuaded in the eleventh hour by Colin Powell's famous speech to the United Nations laying out the "evidence" that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons in violation of U.N. Resolution 687. (Then, as now, I eschewed the misleading propaganda term weapons of mass destruction.) In fact, we all learned later, Saddam hadn't stockpiled these weapons. What can I say? Powell was duped, I was duped, and other, more seasoned journalists (including the late Mary McGrory, who wrote one of her last columns about the speech) were duped, too. My column "Chatterbox Goes to War" is painful to read five years later, and not only because it contains the fatuous pronouncement, "No honest person can dispute, after reviewing Powell's satellite photos and telephone intercepts, that Iraq still has" chemical and biological weapons.

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Far less forgivable, in retrospect, than my smug certainty that Iraq possessed dangerous weapons was my reasoning that this offense left us no alternative to war. We had to invade, I wrote, "because the Bush administration and the United Nations threw down the gauntlet." Had the Bush administration kept secret the "evidence" that Iraq had ignored our warning, I argued, it would have been preferable to resolve the matter diplomatically. But since the "evidence" was now common knowledge, the United States was obliged to bear arms in defense of its own credibility. In essence, I concluded that the Bush administration had compelled me to support the invasion by maneuvering my country into what felt like an untenable position. What I've learned, and will try to remember from now on, is that defending your country's credibility is never sufficient reason to fight a war.

I'd much rather, dear reader, that you read my columns prior to "Chatterbox Goes to War," in which I knocked down various arguments proffered by the hawks. (See, for example, this column, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one.) These have worn much better. A larger question, though: Why should you waste your time, at this late date, ingesting the opinions of people who were wrong about Iraq? Wouldn't you benefit more from considering the views of people who were right? Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war, even though that same mainstream acknowledges, for the most part, that the war was a mistake. That's true of Slate's symposium, and it was true of a similar symposium that appeared March 16 on the New York Times' op-ed pages. The people who opposed U.S. entry into the Iraq war, it would appear, are insufficiently "serious" to explain why they were right.

Fortunately, this Lewis Carroll logic hasn't prevailed where it matters most: in the race for the Democratic nomination. The front-runner, Barack Obama, is winning primary votes partly on the strength of his having opposed the Iraq invasion. Another person who ultimately proved right on Iraq is Mary McGrory. Yes, she got conned along with the rest of us about Saddam's purported stockpile, but if you read her follow-up columns, you'll realize that she never took the next step and declared herself in favor of war. In her Feb. 13 column, she wrote:

[E]veryone needs a respite from the encircling apprehension and dread. Beginning with the president, all should take a deep breath and reassess. Colin Powell is working overtime to close the loop on Iraq's ties to al Qaeda. In his masterly U.N. speech he made the case against Saddam Hussein, but not the case for war. He needs a rest. The orange alert has worn everybody out.

McGrory repeated this sentiment in her March 6 column, addressed to readers who'd misconstrued her Powell column. A couple of weeks later, McGrory suffered a stroke, and 13 months later she died. But she leaves behind a lovely anthology, edited by her friend Phil Gailey. It can be read more profitably than this pile of tired mea culpas.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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