The War Was Right, the President Was Wrong

Looking back on the decision to go to Iraq.


Five years ago, Congress and President Bush made the most consequential and, as now seems more likely than not, unfortunate decision of this country's still young century. On October 16, 2002, Bush signed a resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Should war supporters apologize?

Democrats certainly think so. In the five years since then, many of them have said "I told you so"—many more, in fact, than told us so. In a recent paper, Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego), unearthed figures suggesting that some Democrats have edited their memories. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 46 percent of them favored the war, according to an average of a dozen surveys. In 2006, only 21 percent of them said they had favored the war. Hmm. Do the math.

Those 25 percent of Democrats who were for the war until they had always been against it were probably not dissembling. They were just being human. "Memory is a self-justifying historian," says Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and a co-author (with Elliot Aronson) of the recent book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. "Our memories are a better indication of what we believe and how we see ourselves today than of what actually happened."

I believe her, because I was not above a little memory repair myself. Recently, after a book review of mine appeared in The Washington Post, an angry reader wrote, "It will come as no surprise that Rauch was an advocate of invading Iraq." Who, me? I recalled myself as an agonized fence-sitter, more anti-anti-war than pro-war (an important distinction, you understand), maybe marginally in favor but more worried than convinced.

Just double-checking, I reread my columns from the period and promptly found one, from February 2004, in which I described myself as an, er, "advocate of the war." Gee. Imagine that.

So let me say for the record: I was wrong. Like most Americans, I have long since come to believe that the Iraq war was a strategic mistake—with luck. (Without luck, it will be a strategic calamity.) But let me also say what I was wrong about.

In that February 2004 article, I called the war a "justified mistake." When a cop shoots a robber who has murdered in the past and who brandishes what looks like a gun, we blame the robber, not the cop—even if it turns out that the robber was brandishing a toy or a cellphone. The robber was asking for it, and so was Saddam Hussein.

That answer, although still reasonable, no longer seems as convincing. Since 2004, it has become clearer that the Bush administration's prewar hype portrayed the intelligence on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction as solider and starker than it really was. Not enough people, including people in the media, asked enough hard questions. I should have been more skeptical of the WMD hard sell. That was mistake No. 1.

Mistake No. 2 was forgetting the difference between experts and poseurs. Over the past few years, it has become clearer that the hazards of the U.S. occupation of Iraq were not unforeseeable. In fact, quite a few people foresaw them. And warned about them. And went unheeded. Partly that was because the Bush administration wasn't interested, but partly it was because a lot of us in the media gave a lot of ink and airtime to pontificators who had never been to Iraq, who had never fought in a war or served in an embassy or worked on a reconstruction team, and who did not know Iraq's language, culture, people, leaders, history, or region. Other than that, they were experts.

In 2002 and 2003, of course, there was no way of knowing which of countless forecasts and opinions would prove correct. The experts were divided; sometimes fresh-eyed amateurs see what jaded experts miss; the previous U.S. Iraq policy was no big success. All true. Still, the fact that so many of the war's sturdiest proponents were journalists and pundits—in other words, hacks, like me—should have rung more alarm bells. That was mistake No. 2.

Those, however, were small mistakes compared with the fundamental one. It was not, really, a mistake about the war at all. It was a mistake about the president.

Fool me twice, shame on me. In 1990, I was fooled once. In the prelude to the Persian Gulf War, I misjudged President George H.W. Bush. In those days, America's most resounding recent military triumphs had been against the Lilliputian forces of Panama and Grenada, against which weighed the 1975 defeat in Vietnam, the 1980 fiasco of Desert One (President Carter's failed hostage-rescue attempt in Iran), and the 1983 humiliation in Lebanon (where U.S. forces turned tail after losing more than 200 marines to a Hezbollah truck bomb). Saddam Hussein's forces looked formidable and well entrenched in 1990. The sandstorms looked forbidding. And President George H.W. Bush looked hapless. I opposed the war.

The U.S. military proved virtuosic, the Iraqi military proved worthless, the desert proved tractable, and, much the most important, the elder Bush proved dazzling. He marshaled an unprecedented coalition. He won decisively in hours. He quit while he was ahead. He even got other countries to pay. He should not have stood by as Saddam savagely put down postwar rebellions; but otherwise his performance was masterly, not least in its realism and restraint.

As I came to the 2002-2003 Iraq debate, I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. Another Bush was president, and the younger one looked as decisive as his father had once seemed dotty. This, after all, was the George W. Bush who had impressively rallied the nation and the world after September 11.

His foreign-policy team looked easily the equal of his father's, or anybody's. Vice President Cheney was the wise man of Washington and the elder Bush's successful Defense secretary. Secretary of State Colin Powell was the magisterial architect of the Gulf War. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the man whose plan had worked like a charm in Afghanistan. If Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, was not the equal of her 1990 predecessor, Brent Scowcroft, she was no lightweight. Surely if any war Cabinet could inspire confidence, this was it.

Wrong again. Zero for two.

George W. Bush had more than his share of bad luck in Iraq. He bet that Saddam would have an active nuclear or at least biological-weapons program; that Iraq's social and physical infrastructure would be functional; that the war would be short. None of those bets was crazy, but he lost all three.

Still, a good gambler never bets more than he can afford to lose; he scrubs the odds with a sharp eye on the worst case; he hedges to give himself options. Above all, he keeps abreast of the game.

Bush placed too large a bet, padded the odds, and didn't hedge. Worst of all, he never caught up with the state of play. Again and again, he and his team were too slow in understanding and reacting to events, if they reacted at all. They were late to react to wholesale looting; late to understand the scale of the effort and to commit sufficient forces (arguably they still haven't); late to recognize they confronted an insurgency and to fight it with proven counterinsurgency tactics; late to recognize the emergence of a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Today, almost five years on, they are still behind the curve: As Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., plausibly argues, Bush clings to an insistence on a strong central government in Baghdad, despite that strategy's failure and signs that regionalism would work better.

Some optimists say that in Army Gen. David Petraeus, Bush has finally found his Gen. Grant. That may or may not be true, but it is beside the point. The problem is that Petraeus has not yet found his President Lincoln.

Judging presidents' wartime performance before the war starts is hard. No one could have known in 1860 that Lincoln, a lawyer and military novice, would develop into a commander-in-chief of genius. As lessons go, "Don't misjudge the president before committing to a war" is roughly as useful as "Buy low, sell high."

It does, however, provide some insight into the key mistake of five years ago. In February, asked for the umpteenth time to recant her war vote, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for the umpteenth time refused. "The mistakes were made by the president," she said. In 2004, she said, "I do not regret giving the president authority…. What I regret is the way the president used the authority."

She had a fair point. She might have sharpened it by saying what I have come to say: I do not regret giving the president authority; I regret giving this president authority. I am sorry. I made a mistake five years ago. But not about the vote. About the leader.

© Copyright 2007 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.