I Was Horribly, Unforgivably Wrong About Iraq

flickr-444890144-hdToday is the 10th anniver­sary of the US inva­sion of Iraq. And I was wrong.

I did­n’t do any real dam­age by being wrong, at least not in an obvi­ous way. I was 21, in col­lege, a part of that 72% of Amer­i­ca who sup­port­ed the inva­sion, believ­ing that Sad­dam Hus­sein had weapons of mass destruc­tion, that he was a clear and immi­nent threat to his neigh­bors and the region, that he was har­bor­ing mem­bers of al Qae­da, and that his human rights abus­es were so grave only inva­sion could pos­si­bly right the sit­u­a­tion.

Only that last bit, that Hus­sein was a hor­ren­dous abuser of human rights, was in any way right. The rest were lies, pushed by admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials, gullible (or dis­hon­est) jour­nal­ists, and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als pro­mot­ing their Iran­ian friends.

In short: it was a big lie. And we — I — fell for it.

For myself, I can point to a num­ber of rea­sons. I was 21 at the time and like most 21-year olds did not think very deeply or crit­i­cal­ly. I did not under­stand how the gov­ern­ment worked, how the media worked, and I did­n’t assume every­one was lying to me con­stant­ly to jus­ti­fy war.

I guess many of those are true for the rest of the coun­try: nor­mal peo­ple who did­n’t spend every wak­ing minute look­ing for fac­tu­al errors in what the coun­try’s lead­ers were say­ing and assumed good faith from reporters and pun­dits. Some peo­ple were right that the war would be a dis­as­ter (I remem­ber argu­ing with my friend Doug Bandow about this, and he was right and I was wrong). But most of the coun­try was wrong. They were just wrong: mis­led by lies, per­suad­ed by hype, and ulti­mate­ly, hor­ri­bly wrong.

My turn­ing point came dur­ing the Abu Ghraib rev­e­la­tions. They lit­er­al­ly shocked me out of com­pla­cen­cy about the war. And as I ques­tioned more and more of the war’s foun­da­tion and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, the more I found it want­i­ng.

By the time I would have called myself an out­right oppo­nent of the war, which was prob­a­bly mid-2005 or so, it was far too late to mat­ter. The U.S. was there, and the iner­tia that tends to keep us involved in point­less wars kept us there through the dis­as­ter of 2006, the dis­as­ter of 2007, the Surge that did lit­tle more than eth­ni­cal­ly cleanse the pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, and final­ly to a humil­i­at­ing with­draw­al where we’re left with a hos­tile, pro-Iran gov­ern­ment, no oil con­tracts, and a half-emp­ty embassy the size of the Vat­i­can.

It was the real­iza­tion that peo­ple will tell bald­faced lies to get us into wars that informs my reflex­ive oppo­si­tion to war rhetoric today: that’s why I’ve refused to sup­port the wars in Libya and Mali, and why I con­tin­ue to oppose launch­ing a war in Syr­ia. None of the peo­ple push­ing these con­flicts have earned the right to be trust­ed so I don’t trust them.

But is there any hope for the future? I don’t know. The war in Libya could­n’t real­ly muster major­i­ty sup­port (though it did have plu­ral­i­ty sup­port). That did­n’t seem to stop any­one. Despite his lead­er­ship of Iraq’s tor­ture camps, peo­ple still think Stan­ley McChrys­tal is a nation­al hero. Those same pun­dits who lied about the war to start it still have their jobs, and in some cas­es prof­it­ed hand­some­ly from it.

Hmm. Maybe I’m not hope­ful about the future. But I do have an idea: don’t accept it. Espe­cial­ly this week, as every­one reflects on the last decade of Iraq, call peo­ple out. If they try to say it was worth it, as peo­ple like Max Boot do con­stant­ly, we can and should call them out for their lies. When Fred and Kim Kagan com­plain not about going into Iraq, but about leav­ing it, we should call them out for their lies.

I was wrong in 2003, and I can under­stand some­one else for being wrong then too. It does not make the war right but I can at least under­stand it. I can­not under­stand con­tin­u­ing to think the war was good, or that it helped any­one (least of all Iraq), or that we are some­how bet­ter off for it. Those peo­ple, who push that foul lie, need to be exclud­ed from pub­lic life and ridiculed end­less­ly.

It is only by grap­pling with why we got Iraq so very hor­ri­bly wrong in 2003 that we can ever hope to avoid the next one. Let’s reject those who are immune to self-reflec­tion. Let’s search for answers for how to pre­vent the next cat­a­stro­phe. And final­ly, let’s demand account­abil­i­ty from our lead­ers whose lies caused it from the very begin­ning.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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