The Iraq War: Who Got It Wrong


“In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

The shock of 9/11 and the rapid appearance of success in ousting the Taliban presented George W. Bush with political power few U.S. presidents have enjoyed. Bush’s approval rating shot up to an astounding 90 percent in the aftermath of the largest-ever terror attack on Americans. Less than a year later, the Republican Party picked up eight House seats and control of the Senate — one of the few times in history the president’s party posted gains in a midterm election.

Lie by lie, the Bush administration fed the public’s paranoia and built its case for war.

The week before the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Bush’s approval rating was at 58 percent. A week later it was at 71. It hovered well above 50 percent until Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003. Bush was re-elected in November, 2004 with approval at just about 50 percent, then his popularity then began a slow decline — hitting a nadir of 25 percent during the last few months before he left office in 2008.

The recognition that Iraq was a horrendous failure came slowly to the majority of Americans — despite the courageous opposition of many on the left, including hundreds of thousands of peace protesters. As it became clear the insurgency was not in fact in its “last throes,” complaints focused on the lack of armor and supplies for the solidiers. Republicans such as John McCain fixated on the tactics and the need for more ground forces. Eventually hawkish Democrats who supported the war began to turn, led by Congressman John Murtha, who on November 17, 2005 introduced a resolution that called for U.S. troops to be “redeployed at the earliest practicable date.”

But by then the human costs and blowback of the war, along with the neglect of Afghanistan, were obvious to everyone except diehard neoconservatives. The public’s reaction to the Bush administration’s mishandling of a doomed war played a major role in the Democratic Party’s takeover of Congress in 2006, led by antiwar leaders Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

We’ve given credit to some of those who opposed the war when it was unpopular to do so. Though those of us who lived through this sad chapter in American history know many of the names of those who led us into the Iraq War, it’s worth calling them out again.

Photo: Jim Gordon via Flickr

George W. Bush and Tony Blair

Two men, more than any other, bear the weight of the responsibility for the Iraq War disaster — former president George W. Bush and former United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair.

Blair completely embraced the American administration’s rush to war. His claim in the forward to the so-called “September Dossier” that Saddam Hussein had “WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them” was more incendiary than even Colin Powell’s fallacious 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council.

History will forever speculate on why Bush was so urgent to displace Hussein. Some have argued that it was his plan even before 9/11. Others posit that his vice president, Dick Cheney, bullied Bush in service of the neoconservative agenda of The Project for a New American Century, which was formed in the late 90s and was among the first to advocate regime change. Nabil Shaath, former Palestinian foreign minister, reported that Bush told him that God said, “‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Blair did encourage Bush to go through the United Nations, where the Security Council approved a resolution calling for Hussein to disarm. But when Security Council members Russia and France said they’d veto a resolution for war, Bush and Blair decided to invade anyway.

The Chilcot inquiry is still trying to determine what, if any, conditions Blair put on his country’s involvement and why he made the decision to go to war. That report is expected this fall.

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and The Office of Special Plans


Dick Cheney — who selected himself to be George W. Bush’s running mate — also took the role of selling the doctrine of preemption and the invasion of Iraq to the country. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” was his tagline.

Cheney first attempted to connect Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks through Mohammed Atta in December of 2001. When that connection proved faulty, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set up the Pentagon Office of Special Plans, as The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh reported:

According to the Pentagon adviser, Special Plans was created in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true—that Saddam Hussein had close ties to al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States.

Rumsfeld knew that the CIA was trying to disprove the connection between Iraq and terrorism and/or weapons of mass destruction. The Special Office was created to do the exact opposite.

That office relied almost completely on Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress – “an umbrella organization for diverse groups opposed to Saddam.” That intelligence formed the basis of the case Cheney and Powell made to the world, and it was mostly false.

The intelligence the Office developed and shared was “alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision makers.” The Pentagon’s inspector general called this “inappropriate,” but not “illegal,” in February, 2007.

By then, it was too late. Thousands of Americans were dead, tens of thousands injured and more than 100,000 civilians dead.

Cheney remains unrepentant. “I did what I did, it’s all on the public record, and I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute,” he says, in a documentary to be released this month.

Fred Hiatt


As the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt wrote 27 editorials supporting the invasion of Iraq. The day after Powell’s 2003 presentation to the UN, Hiatt’s editorial called the evidence “irrefutable” and “overwhelming.”As the war floundered on, Hiatt’s faith never wavered and he continued blasting Democrats for even considering withdrawal.

Photo: danxoneil via Flickr

Judith Miller

From the winter of 2001 up until the invasion of Iraq, The New York TimesJudith Miller produced a series of unbelievable stories about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. So “unbelievable” that they all turned out to be false, directly fed to her by Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi and his allies.

Under the guise of journalistic ethics, she went to jail to protect the name of the source who revealed to her that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent — Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who was later convicted of perjury. The Times let her go in 2005, right around the same time they apologized for their reporting leading up to the war.

She now occasionally appears — as if scripted for a gag from the closing credits of a movie — on Fox News’ News Watch.

The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine

If you watched Fox News or read the right-wing media in the months leading up to the Iraq War, the message was clear: Another 9/11 is coming unless we invade Iraq.

The truth was that 9/11 merely provided an opportunity for neoconservatives to depose Saddam Hussein, something they’d been thinking about since 1991. Bill Kristol explained this in an interview with PBS on January 14, 2003:

Well, none of us expected necessarily that we would be at all involved in, or spectators to, a second war with Saddam Hussein. … But it is the case that people like Charles Krauthammer, myself, Paul Wolfowitz, I think, thought right then that we probably had made a mistake when we failed to aid the rebels against Saddam. A couple of weeks later, we were pretty certain we had made a mistake. It’s not as if we spent the next 10 years thinking only about redeeming this mistake. But I do think, after Sept. 11, they really found there was an opportunity to do the right thing in Iraq.

Kristol and Krauthammer, in their role as regular Fox News contributors, helped sell “the right thing” by hyping the threat and advocating for Cheney’s new doctrine of preemption.

The groupthink around the war oozed out from the usual suspects, enveloping journalists who had long nurtured their objective image. Bob Woodward — a decade before he was accusing the Obama White House of threatening him – was cheering on the invasion by telling CNN’s Larry King that the chances of not finding weapons of mass destruction were “zero.”

Here Joseph Cirincione, current president of the Ploughshares Fund, asks a simple question: Why haven’t neoconservatives been shamed out of public life after their misadventure in Iraq ended up making every threat to the United States worse?

Andrew Sullivan

He’s being called “future of journalism” now. But Andrew Sullivan was a devoted hawk in the years following 9/11.

Immediately after the attacks, he called out anyone who opposed an invasion of Afghanistan with venom. “The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.”

He grew disillusioned with the war, claiming he misjudged George W. Bush’s “sense of morality,” and eventually called those who supported the invasion and were afraid to criticize the war effort “cowards.”

Photo: Trey Ratcliff

Christopher Hitchens

The acidic British journalist and writer proved to be one of the most indignant, effective and unrepentant supporters of the Iraq War. Though he resisted being defined as a neoconservative or any kind of conservative, Hitchens argued for the invasion in editorials and a book. And he continued his defense of the war, though it forced him to leave his job at The Nation and even as he waged his own personal campaigns against Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa and God.

His friends attributed his fervent support of an atrocity that cost so many lives to a hatred of religion. His fervor even led him to participate in a propaganda tour of occupied Iraq with neocon Paul Wolfowitz.

Hitchens died on the day the war ended, after a public bout with cancer. Upon news of his death, Gawker‘s John Cook wrote, “He did immense good in his life, and unforgivable harm.”

About 42 Percent Of The Democrats In Congress

Since the Truman administration, the Republican Party has had a steadfast national security advantage in the minds of voters. Democrats sensitive to seeming weak on defense played key roles in supporting the war in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Following 9/11, nearly all of the center-left stood with the Bush administration in supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, which was measured and strategically light.

As Republicans made it clear that they were going to make the 2002 midterm election a referendum on war, Democrats were forced to vote in October on whether President Bush had the power to back up the UN resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm. Many Democrats hoped this would encourage a peaceful resolution that would prevent invasion – many likely feared the appearance of weakness on defense in a time of war.

In the end, 81 House Democrats voted “yea” while 126 said “nay.” In the Senate, a slight majority of 26 Democrats – including future vice president Joe Biden, future Democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominees John Kerry and John Edwards, and future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – all voted yes, while 22 senators with a (D) after their name said no.

The late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) called his vote against the war his “greatest.” His speech on the floor of the Senate preemptively encapsulated how nearly all Democrats — and Americans — ended up feeling about the Iraq War.

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