Navel-gazing: Ten years ago, on the eve of war

March 19, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 19, 2013

There have been plenty of navel-gazing columns by the pundit class lately. And with good reason: Ten years ago today, the United States was on the eve of launching a “war of choice” against Iraq and its ambitious, brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein.

I consider the war and subsequent occupation a colossal blunder. The exercise was grounded in lies and conducted in the main by laughably unprepared bunglers. Its consequences have been thoroughly lamentable for many, including our nation.

None of this, however, was apparent to me 10 years ago.

At the time, I was a master’s student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. I had a cautiously positive outlook about attacking Iraq.

Although I hadn’t voted for President George W. Bush (and would not do so in 2004, either), I found administration assertions that Hussein was actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons fundamentally trustworthy. These assertions, and my assessment, turned out to be gravely mistaken. 

There were other reasons I was willing to accept, if not embrace, Bush’s rush to war. It was clear then that Iraq had no real link to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, nor to the Qaeda organization that had orchestrated the operation.

However, I bought into the notion, so popular among neoconservatives, that an American takeover of Iraq would result in a brand new, functional and fundamentally secular democratic republic. This remade nation, I hoped, would be an example that inspired the Middle East to accept Western values — freedom of speech and religion; equal political and judicial rights for all; the rule of law — that have succeeded so spectacularly (albeit incompletely) throughout the U.S., Canada and much of Europe.

I envisioned Iraq 2.0 prompting changes in the Middle East that would lead to a resolution of the Palestinian conflict, or at least a significant easing of many Muslims’ all-consuming hatred for Israel. The transformation — by no means an immediate or easy one, but one I found so easy to imagine — would render the Middle East safer, more peaceful and more stable. This would truly be a great victory for the region and indeed for the world.

This pipe dream was the main reason for my acceptance of the coming war. But there was one other rationale that swayed me.

I generally try to avoid thinking in terms of labels; but I could not help but think of Hussein as a clearly evil ruler. He had fought a bloody war against neighboring Iran; he had cruelly slaughtered rebellious Kurds living in Iraq; he had oppressed his own people by any number of lawless and vicious means, including the torture of actual and perceived political foes. Hussein’s deposition and death would, I felt, be little mourned.

That Hussein was evil would not, in and of itself, have been enough in my mind to justify an elective war. However, in combination with the trumped-up evidence of Hussein’s WMD program and the grand visions of a nation and a region transformed by and made to prosper through Western values — well, this heady mixture persuaded me that a second Gulf War might well be a good thing.

My pat, appealing formulation, of course, has been made to appear farcical by history. While the actual conquest of Iraq was relatively simple, the American-led occupation seems to have been the occasion for virtually every imaginable kind of mistake.

Perhaps if the right officials had been in place — if warnings had been heeded — if planning had been more thorough — if arms caches had been secured or destroyed by American forces that were otherwise preoccupied by a headlong rush to Baghdad — if the nation’s cultural artifacts had been guarded against looters — if the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded…

If things had gone differently, perhaps Iraq 2.0 might be a gleaming jewel emulated across the Middle East. But the weapons of mass destruction weren’t there, innumerable warnings were ignored by the arrogant Bushies, and too many bunglers were given far too much power. Today, the nation of Iraq is, at best, a very messy and violent work in progress.

The bloody lessons of Iraq has left me with much more skepticism about possible future American belligerence. The Bush administration lied to the American people, and even to itself, about the viability of Hussein’s WMD program. It also lied to itself and us about the effort and expense needed to pacify a conquered nation.

I’m not naïve enough to think that every future war can be averted. But I’m smart enough now to know that the next time leaders are pushing for a war of choice, their every word and act deserves scrutiny of the highest order.

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