My Iraq mistake
The Washington Post, September 2, 2010
My fellow Americans: I'm a pundit, not a president, but since it's a moment for taking stock of America's role in Iraq, I want to remind you that I blew it.
I supported the war in 2003 because I thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Along with Ken Pollack, the former Clinton national security council staffer, whose 2002 book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," was influential at the time, I believed a nuclear-armed Hussein was both inevitable and intolerable.
A lot of peoplefrom Bill Clinton to the German and Israeli intelligence servicesbelieved the same thing. But I'm skeptical of what people claim to "know" in many other areas of public life. I wasn't skeptical enough about this. I argued back then about the risks of inaction outweighing the risks of action. When I look over those columns today, from the distance of nearly eight years, they seem reasonable and serious.
Except, of course, that their premise was utterly wrong. If I'd known beforehand that Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, I would not have supported the war. I don't believe President Bush misled the country about these facts, because many other sources held the same view of Hussein's capabilities. (I don't believe Colin Powell was intentionally misleading anyone at the United Nations either, but it turned out not to be his finest hour.)
I've been struggling with what my mistake means ever since. When he was at the center of events in the Clinton years, Bob Rubin spoke often about what he called "probabilistic reasoning." You do the best you can to assign rough probabilities to the complex scenarios you face, he said, and to the likely outcomes of decisionsand then make your call as best you can. His corollary was that you couldn't judge the quality of a decision after the fact, when more became known. You could only judge the quality of a decision based on the information available at the time.
This used to strike me as sound. I don't think so now. It may not be "fair," but, as political leaders know better than most, the quality of decisions, in every way that matters, turn on their outcome. That's why it's better to be lucky than smart. There's something depressing about the futility of human reason in all this, but also something undeniable.
History doesn't allow mulligans. If it did, Iraq's might have meant a stepped-up version of the post-Gulf war "containment" regime of sanctions, inspections and no-fly zones. It's surreal to recall that the no-fly zones were once thought to be "expensive," before we dropped a trillion dollars on a war. Hussein would have died one day of old age or been slain by rivals, and a bloody succession battle would have ensued. He would have done many awful things in the meantime. But America can't solve every evil in the world. Hussein's villainy was never a reason for war, just as the plight of Afghan women can't be reason to devote 150,000 troops and untold billions to chase down what the CIA says are 60 to 80 members of al-Qaeda.
Still, I'm torn. I can't help thinking that, 100 years from now, America's readiness to send its brave youth half a world away to topple a heinous dictator and then flush him out of a hole will be seen as noble. And not just about oil. For better or worse, I lack the moral clarity and strategic certainty of the war's ardent supporters or foes.
Instead, in retrospect, invading Iraq strikes me as a bad decision that the United States has had no choice but to make the best of. Our troops have performed remarkably. Whether they've been well served by their political leadersor their political punditsis another matter.
For my part, I'm chastened. I'm less confident in my judgments on foreign affairs. Politicians rarely admit they're mistaken (as our surge-opposing president and vice president proved again this week). Neither do I. But politicians can be held to account. Pundits prattle on regardless. Not to be holier (or wronger) than thou, but that turns people off. It ought to.
I'm hoping for the best, in the spirit the president urged Tuesday night, though he can't admit he fought the surge that's created the chance for a happier ending. But in the end I'm with Cher, who's still singing her heart out in Las Vegas: "If I could turn back time . . . "
Thank you, God bless you, and may God save America's unaccountable chattering class.