Ten years ago, as President George W. Bush took the final, fateful steps to launch the United States’ invasion of Iraq, Christopher Cerf and I were pulling all-nighters, feverishly putting the final touches on our anthology The Iraq War Reader. Having done a previous well-received anthology on the Gulf War, the campaign led by Bush Senior to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait back in 1991, we felt we had no choice but to offer a sequel. After all, we joked to ourselves, if Junior thought he had to “finish the job,” we did too.
Both of our books were designed to be comprehensive, readable guides to the history, documents and opinions that swirled around these events. We took care to provide a fair and balanced mix of points of view, to let readers make up their own minds about what they thought about the wisdom and justice of these wars.
But truth be told, both Chris and I were deeply skeptical of the proponents of war, having seen with our own research how often government and military officials lie. And so we made sure to include in our second book plenty of evidence from the first Gulf War of how we had been lied to about things as small as the supposed efficacy of the Patriot Missile (it mostly failed to shoot down Scuds) to the monstrous and false claim that Saddam’s troops had ripped babies out of Kuwaiti hospital incubators.
But 10 years ago, it was not a good time to be a war skeptic in America. It rarely is. The vast majority of “smart” and “serious” people had convinced themselves that in the face of Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, the prudent thing to do was to go to war to remove him from power.
Skeptics who tried to argue that it was better to let UN weapons inspectors continue monitoring his efforts while maintaining sanctions that hemmed in his regime were deemed foolish and naïve. Regional experts who warned of the danger that a post-Saddam Iraq would collapse into civil war, that Iran would be strengthened, or that any American occupation would be costly and futile, were dismissed as worrying about hypotheticals. Those were seen as abstractions compared to the “reality” that Iraq was on the verge of getting a nuclear bomb, presumably against us.
Later that spring, as we sent the book to all its contributors, I took some consolation as I inscribed each copy with words to the effect of: “To a full and vibrant debate. Let’s see in 10 years who was right.”
Looking back now, it’s easy to see who was wrong about the need to invade Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Judith Miller, Kenneth Pollack, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, George Will, Ann Coulter, Peggy Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, William Safire, Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Gephardt, Tom DeLay, George Tenet, John McCain and of course Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush: You were all wrong about this.
Not only that, you were all wrong about the war’s likely aftermath. There were no “kites and boomboxes” greeting American troops in Baghdad and Basra, as Ajami predicted. Just sectarian riots and suicide bombers. (This disastrous prediction hasn’t stopped CNN from continuing to rely on Ajami as a regular expert commentator.)
A few prominent pundits, like Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Friedman, at least admitted that while they favored going to war, they recognized the aftermath would be complicated and that it would not be a success if it didn’t produce a “liberated Iraq” (Friedman) that would be “better and safer” for Iraqis and Kurds (Hitchens). These hopes, obviously, were also wishful thinking. Bur remember, in the topsy-turvy times of 10 years ago, men of action were deemed prudent, while counsels of caution were considered crackpots.
A few Democratic centrists, like Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, fell for the false intel about Iraq’s weapons programs, unfortunately helping to legitimize Bush’s casus belli. But at least they argued against pre-emptive and unilateral war, sought to buy time for more inspections and sanctions, and insisted that an occupation of Iraq would be terribly costly.
Who got Iraq right in our book? The honor role, in order of their appearance in our pages, includes Noam Chomsky, Ron Paul, Patrick Buchanan, Arianna Huffington, Robert Byrd, John Mearshimer, Stephen Walt, John le Carre, Edward Said, Terry Jones, Jonathan Schell, James Fallows, Mohamed El Baradei (the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency), and the governments of Russia, France and Germany (who tried to block Bush’s rush to war in the Security Council).
Sadly, too many of the people who got Iraq wrong have never really admitted their mistakes and are still treated as respected voices of opinion. When you read them or see them on TV, there ought to be an asterisk next to their names reading: “Caution — Wrong about the Iraq War.” And too few of the war’s skeptics have been rewarded for being right.
But hopefully, the next time our government tries to rush us into a war, the dissenters will be treated with more respect, and the proponents with less. Many lives will depend on it.