The lessons of Iraq.

The lessons of Iraq.

The lessons of Iraq.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 19 2008 2:05 PM

How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

Rather than bore you with the answer, here are lessons from the experience.

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.

George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
George W. Bush

You're not my shrink, so I see no reason to bore you with the story of how yet another sorry pundit came to endorse, and later regret, the invasion of Iraq. Instead, I'll try to draw some lessons from the experience. I particularly want to talk to those of you who, like me, would like to understand the errors of this war without renouncing the use of force altogether. "I don't oppose all wars," Barack Obama declared six years ago. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war." Let's try to flesh out that distinction.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Question authority. That's what the Quakers taught me in college. But you don't have to be a pacifist to see how it applies to Iraq. The U.S. government deceived itself and us about the evidence of WMD. I'm a bit too young, or just too poorly read in history, to have absorbed Vietnam's lessons about trusting your government. So I learned it the hard way. I hope my kids don't have to go through another dumb war to get the same lesson.

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2. Suspicion can become gullibility. I'm all for suspicion, particularly in foreign relations. The world is full of bad people, and bad people are more likely to claw their way to power in other countries than good people are. But past a certain point, suspicion can make you credulous. This is what happened to Dick Cheney. He was so suspicious of Saddam that he bought—and spread—rumors, lies, and exaggerations about Iraqi WMD. Worse, he failed to recognize his credulity, since he thought he was being suspicious. The next time somebody feeds you rumors in the name of vigilance, remember this.

3. Beware mission creep. Originally, I endorsed the use of force to put teeth in U.N. weapons inspections. I figured that the best long-term hope for a peaceful world was an enforceable international system to police WMD. Saddam was jerking around the inspectors. He had to be punished, or the system, such as it was, would collapse. That rationale remains valid even if the scofflaw turns out not to have WMD. But if that was the rationale for going in, why disband the Iraqi army? Remaking Iraq was more than the offense justified and more than we could handle. Bush's dad had it right in the Gulf War: Right the wrong, punish the offense, and stop.

4. See new evil. It's easy to hate the tyrant who's thumbing his nose at you. It's harder to see the possibility or likelihood of a worse alternative behind him. I never really thought through the chain of events that would fill the power vacuum created by Saddam's ouster. Neither did Bush. We ended up with insurgency, chaos, and the arrival of "al-Qaida in Iraq," which John McCain now cites as a threat so grave we have to keep scores of thousands of U.S. troops in the country. Before you take out somebody bad, make sure the result won't be worse.

5. Human nature at home is human nature abroad. Conservatives have long preached the dangers of dependency. The more government props up and regulates people, the less they learn to support and regulate themselves. Experience tells me that this principle is true. The problem is that conservatives forgot it at the water's edge. They propped up Iraqi society and government. Each time the Iraqis failed to meet scheduled requirements to regulate and support themselves, Bush made excuses and said they needed more American help. The party of welfare reform should look back in amazement and shame at this policy.

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6. Judge the warrior. For two years, I had a running debate with my friend David Corn about the war. From our respective seats on the TV show Eye on Washington, he criticized the war while I defended it. We agreed that Bush was a fool. He argued that this flaw was decisive: I had to decide whether to support Bush's war, not the war as I might have preferred it. I replied that liberals shouldn't oppose the war just because Bush was running it. Eventually, I realized that the idea of nonpartisanship meant little next to the lethal reality of incompetence. Corn was right: You have to decide whether you trust the administration, not just the idea of the war. Other Republican administrations have passed that test. Not this one.

7. Know your limits. During Kosovo, I defended NATO's decision to bomb from the air instead of sending ground troops. "By depriving Serbia of the ability to kill allied soldiers, NATO leaders demoralized Serb commanders who had counted on body bags to demoralize citizens in the West," I wrote. "By taking into account the limits of its own will—the will to endure pain—NATO broke Serbia's." In Iraq, I ignored that lesson. So did Bush. He inserted U.S. ground troops and left them there, inviting a parade of body bags that demoralized our nation.

8. Consider the opportunity cost. The problem with dumb war isn't that it's war. The problem is that it costs you the military, economic, and political resources to fight a smart war. Everything Bush wrongly attributed to Iraq turns out to be true of Iran. But we can't confront Iran with the force it probably requires, because we wasted our resources in Iraq. Americans, having been suckered in Iraq, won't accept evidence of Iran's nuclear program. Countries that might have supported us in a strike on Iran won't do so now, since we led them astray. Our coffers have been emptied to pay for the Iraq occupation. Our troops are physically and spiritually exhausted. In the name of strength, Bush has made us weak.

I wish I'd absorbed these lessons before the war. The best I can do now is remember them before the next one.