I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional.

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March 18 2008 7:47 AM

How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I thought we had a chance to stabilize an unstable region, and—I admit it—I wanted to strike back.

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.

An anthrax-containing letter mailed to Sen. Tom Daschle. Click image to expand.
An anthrax-containing letter mailed to Sen. Tom Daschle

Anthrax. Remember anthrax? It seems no one does anymore—at least it's never mentioned. But right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, letters laced with anthrax were received at the New York Post and Tom Brokaw's office at NBC. In the following days, more anthrax-contaminated letters were received by other news organizations—CBS News and, presumably, ABC, where traces of anthrax were found in the newsroom. Weirdly, even the Sun, a supermarket tabloid, also got a letter, and a photo editor, Bob Stevens, was fatally infected. Other letters were sent to Sen. Tom Daschle's Capitol Hill office, and in Washington, D.C., a postal worker, Thomas L. Morris Jr., died. There was ample reason to be afraid.

The attacks were not entirely unexpected. I had been told soon after Sept. 11 to secure Cipro, the antidote to anthrax. The tip had come in a roundabout way from a high government official, and I immediately acted on it. I was carrying Cipro way before most people had ever heard of it.

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For this and other reasons, the anthrax letters appeared linked to the awful events of Sept. 11. It all seemed one and the same. Already, my impulse had been to strike back, an overwhelming urge that had, in fact, taken me by surprise on Sept. 11 itself when the first of the Twin Towers had collapsed. I was downtown, rushing toward the World Trade Center, when I heard the building go, a deep, guttural rumble that preceded that hideous tsunami of paper, building material, and, of course, pulverized bodies. From nowhere, I heard someone inside my head say, "We'll get you, you bastards"—and it was me. I took myself totally by surprise.

In the following days, as the horror started to be airbrushed—no more bodies plummeting to the sidewalk—the anthrax letters started to come, some to people I knew. And I thought, No, I'm not going to sit here passively and wait for it to happen. I wanted to go to "them," whoever "they" were, grab them by the neck, and get them before they could get us. One of "them" was Saddam Hussein. He had messed around with anthrax; he had twice started wars in the region (Iran and Kuwait); he had massacred the Kurds and the Shiites; used chemical weapons (no doubt about that); had had a nuclear weapons program (also no doubt about that); and was violating U.N. resolution after resolution (absolutely no doubt about that, either). Saddam was a sociopath, a uniformed button man, Luca Brasi of Arabia. He was a nasty little fascist, and he needed to be dealt with.

That, more or less, is how I made my decision to support the war in Iraq. It did not take me all that long, however, to have second thoughts—and I expressed them in my column. It was clear that Saddam was unconnected to Osama Bin Laden, that Iraqi intelligence had not met with Mohammed Atta in Prague, and that while Iraq once had a nuclear weapons program, it no longer did. That left chemical and biological weapons, and neither represented much of a threat. Gas had been around since Ypres (1915), and biological devices were impractical as weapons of mass destruction, although they remained profoundly scary. So, the only justification left was, really, what the neocons had started with: a war to reorder the Middle East. This had a certain appeal, since the region was unstable, undemocratic, repressive, and downright dangerous. Can it be a coincidence that so many of the so-called liberal hawks had spent time in the region? When it came to getting it right on Iraq, ignorance may indeed have been bliss.

One final argument appealed to me. It was quite clear that, over time, Saddam would slip the noose of U.N. sanctions, the United States would tire of its campaign to enforce the no-fly zone, the Europeans—so worldly, so repellently even-handed about Israel, so appalled by Saddam's excesses, and, finally, so full of shit—would do business with the regime, and Saddam would be free to use his oil wealth for weapons and war. If something were not done when it seemed that something could be done, then nothing would ever be done—until it was too late.

These, then, were my reasons for war—a war, I argued, that need not be imminent and need not be fought virtually alone. I was becoming a lousy, broken-winged hawk, and I certainly would have lost my other wing entirely had I known that the war would not be brief (as promised) but would grind on for more than five years, producing an appalling carnage, a collapse of U.S. prestige, and a boon to Iran. I was not only unprepared for the revelation that Iraq had no WMD whatsoever, but—even more stunning—that such seasoned hands as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, to name just three veterans of past presidencies, would prove so cosmically incompetent.

I was also intent on rectifying a previous mistake. I had been wrong about Bosnia, and I had, in a way that no swift-fingered blogger could ever understand, anguished over Srebrenica and a return to Europe of horrors long thought gone. I had been to Bosnia and seen in its twisting, darkly forested mountain roads a kind of Balkan Ho Chi Min Trail—impossible terrain that the locals could use to stop an army. Stay out, I cautioned.

I had learned the wrong lesson from that war, and I also learned a wrong lesson from the first Gulf War, which I had supported. Predictions of a quagmire had not materialized, and neither had predictions that the vaunted Arab street—what we now might call terrorism—would erupt and friendly regimes would topple. The lesson now was that force could actually work and save lives.

I had been to Iraq, but I didn't know what I didn't know. One of those things, certainly, is how little we understood the society—an ignorance so profound I don't think 100,000 more troops would have made a difference. We, journalists and government alike, listened to the wrong people and came away smug in ignorance—no one smugger than Rummy. Even with the evidence before his eyes, he saw a nation that was not there.

I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional, and whenever my resolve weakened, as it did over time, I steadied myself by downing belts of inane criticism from the likes of Michael Moore or "realists" like Brent Scowcroft, who had presided over the slaughter of the Shiites. I favored the war not for oil or empire (what silliness!) or Israel but for all the reasons that made me regret Bosnia, Rwanda, and every other time when innocents were being killed and nothing was done to stop it. I owe it to Tony Judt for giving me the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade, who, wrongheaded though he might have been, neatly sums it all up for me: "You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong."

Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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