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It's quite exciting to inaugurate a war, and we at the Standard were far from alone in feeling the thrill. Like much of the pro-war commentariat, I thought, "Whatever happens, it can't get worse." After all, what's worse than a genocidal dictator filling mass graves and stockpiling nukes in the volatile Middle East? (Belief in WMDs was robustly bipartisan at the time.) There even seemed to be a decent chance things would get a whole lot better-an oasis of freedom in a desert of tyranny and all that. My colleagues at the Standard and I supported the war with the best intentions, something that opponents of the war often lose sight of. We dreamed of a free, friendly Iraq. Better for us, better for Iraqis.
As a libertarian, I could have and should have known better than to think government actors would get things right, since my political philosophy is grounded in the idea that government is uniquely bad at getting anything done cheaply or efficiently. War is too often a classic example of government action creating waste and confusion on a spectacular scale, good intentions or not.
As it turns out, things could get worse—and they did.
Michael C. Moynihan, Associate Editor:
Anniversaries of catastrophic wars are typically moments of ritual self-flagellation. So what, then, was I wrong about, what have I changed my mind about, five years later? Where does one begin. In those years proceeding the 9/11 attacks, one was forced, often by the social obligation of dinner discussions, to wade into the swamp of Middle Eastern politics; to be pro-war or anti-war, regardless of your level of political engagement or knowledge.
Groping at the unfamiliar—which ones are the Sunnis? what is a Kurd, exactly?—the post-9/11 cult of the amateur (myself included) rebelled against the supposedly lazy and corrupt "MSM," and instead offered endless lunkheaded comparisons between 2003 Iraq and 1945 Japan. The insurgency that flowered, many bloggers blithely suggested, had its historical antecedents in the Werewolf Organization, a band of former Nazis that harassed Allied occupiers and quickly melted away. The Iraqis, brutalized by war and dictatorship, were ready to have a go at democracy. Of course, none of this would happen.
The best mirror of my bewilderment and disappointment is George Packer's brilliant book The Assassins Gate, a clear-eyed account of the stupidity and venality of those sent by the Bush administration to mismanage the occupation. As one CPA advisor told me in 2006, Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) was known inside the green zone as "Kick Back and Relax." And as Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran's noted with wonderment, James K. Haveman Jr., the official put in charge of Iraq's health care system, landed in Baghdad and launched an anti-smoking campaign. I suppose this is something I always knew, just something that I hoped wouldn't be true in this one case, but boy was I wrong in thinking that the U.S. government could ever achieve a level of honesty and competence needed to even try to promote democracy in an undemocratic region.
Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor:
I was against the war before I was even more against it. I never had any doubts that Saddam Hussein was a murderous thug, but I believed he was a deterrable murderous thug. So even when I assumed he had at least some "weapons of mass destruction," I did not think the threat was big and imminent enough to justify the invasion. Now that we know he had none, I'm embarrassed that I gave as much weight as I did to Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations. I'm only slightly less embarrassed about my warning that Iraq surely would use its dreaded (but nonexistent) chemical weapons once the U.S. invaded. Here is the truth starting to dawn on me, right after the fall of Baghdad: "Could it be that Iraq never had a significant WMD capability?" I added that it might not matter, since "even before jubilant Iraqis started pouring into the streets, waving improvised flags and tearing down Saddam's statues, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom' had metamorphosed from a pre-emptive act of self-defense into a humanitarian mission to rescue people from a brutal dictator."
People who supported the war assure me the Bush administration made the argument about fighting terrorism by turning Iraq into a liberal democracy and thereby transforming the Middle East even before the WMDs went missing. My impression during the lead-up to the invasion was that it was all about neutralizing the WMD threat, since Saddam could decide any day to use those weapons against us, either directly or by passing them on to terrorists. If I had believed the aim was to make the world safe through democracy, which I now hear was the idea all along, I would have been even more skeptical, and I think most Americans would have been as well. I doubt that many who supported the war imagined the U.S. would still have such a large presence in Iraq five years later, let alone that it would have to stay indefinitely simply to prevent the chaos unleashed by the invasion from getting even worse.
Jesse Walker, Managing Editor:
In 2003 I thought there was no compelling reason to invade Iraq, even if the country held weapons of mass destruction; that the U.S. would easily topple Saddam Hussein's regime but would run into serious troubles when the occupation began; and that the war would do much more harm than good.
Five years later, I am less likely to concede the possibility that Saddam was concealing weapons of mass destruction.
David Weigel, Associate Editor:
Do you remember the pro-war protestors? I was one of them. Five years ago a pack of conservatives at my college planned a "crash" of the final anti-war rally before the start of the war. When the forces of non-intervention set up on the library steps and started speaking, we walked right in front of them, blasting the Saddam Hussein love ballad from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut on a ROTC student's boom box.