It was possible to see that the Iraq war was a bad idea from the start; it was possible to see that our invasion was illegal; it was possible to see that the Bush Administration was ginning up rumor and lie to sell a war that met private, undisclosed purposes. Most important, it was very easy to see that the outcome could not be good--even a cursory understanding of the region made it impossible to accept the fantasy engame of flowers, roses, and Jeffersonian democracy that the administration promised. Even if you were a random guy in Portland, Oregon with no access to NIEs or CIA intel. In retrospect, the 75+ percent who thought the war was a good idea have now all agreed on this "but we couldn't know" defense (including Hillary Clinton). But we could know, and we willfully accepted fantasy instead.
Months before the invasion--and even before I started blogging--I wrote a thesis about all the ways in which the argument for war didn't meet its own internal logic. It's a fairly long document, and I won't rehash it here. But there are a few key points I will would like to highlight, for posterity, to refute this "but we didn't know" meme that's circulating. (Props to John and Andrew for their own refutations, which came in the form of mea culpas.)
Claim: Invading Iraq will stabilize the Middle East.
What I wrote then: "Never mind the details, what about the prediction? Invading Afghanistan was a far less controversial move—the Taliban had only been recognized by two other governments (needless to say, they were our allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Yet that invasion sparked violence in South Asia and Israel, and has subsequently been used to justify aggressive action against “terrorists” by Russia. In fact, there is almost no scenario one can imagine in which an invasion of Iraq does anything but further destabilize the region."
Claim: World opinion is irrelevant.
What I wrote then: Invading Iraq without a world mandate (Tony Blair alone does not count) would essentially turn the US into a rogue nation. While world opinion would not translate into any kind of overt action, it is clear that continued US “interventions” are dependent on soft support, at a minimum. Wave bye-bye to all that, particularly in Muslim countries.Claim: Iraq will become a stable democracy.
What I wrote then: This point is the one that has been well-made by a number of folks, so I’ll go into it only briefly. Sixty percent of Iraq is comprised of Shi’ites who have never held power in the country. Kurds comprise another 19%, and have, of course, never held power. The ruling Baath Party represents a Sunni minority of just 17% of the population. Hussein’s regime gained and maintains control through intense violence, which has left the country seething. If the warlords of Afghanistan are proving more difficult to manage than the American military predicted, how will the US or even the UN manage a post-Hussein Iraq? It is guaranteed to be a mess.
In addition to refuting some of the more obvious claims, I added a few other comments, like what some unintended consequences might be. While I look fairly prescient now, it's hard to imagine that a whole raft of people didn't see this then. Of course, they did. They were ignored. Again, from Sept '02:
If the US invades Iraq—either with or without world support—there will arise situations we don’t currently envision. An example is Pooty-Poot and his delight over the Bush doctrine: if invading “terrorist” aggressors is both moral and sound geopolitics, this whole pre-emption deal might be just what the doctor ordered in Georgia. That is a known by-product, but many others will emerge. Obvious other issues, such as the place Baghdad holds in the Muslim world, the Israeli conflict, tensions in Saudi Arabia, the Musharraf government’s stability, effects on terrorist support—all these Bush has ignored.Weighing the decision, I came to this conclusion, which is almost exactly how I would describe what has happened:
The invasion of Iraq would the most obvious abuse of democratic power in a newly-emerging global democracy. Furthermore, it would distract a nation from the sweeping power the President and his administration are seeking at home. Bush has already used circumstances to justify cynical political moves—after his abysmal tax cut passed and the economy started tanking, Bush bragged he’d hit the trifecta: war (Afghanistan), national emergency (terrorism) and recession bailed him out. The Administration’s desire to invade Iraq is no less cynical, and the upside is far, far greater. On balance, the reasons to invade Iraq are few and debatable, the gains small, and the cost huge; the reasons to refrain many and indisputable, the gains large, and the cost nothing. It’s not even close.I'll leave it off there, though I find that the whole document makes pretty satisfying reading, should you care to spend fifteen minutes perusing it. But I will leave off with one more quote, which actually frames the coming election in pretty accurate terms. It's far more urgent now, and the choice between McCain and Clinton/Obama couldn't be starker.
Furthermore, this is an opportunity for the United States to take a genuine leadership role in crafting policy for dealing with international conflict. Paying lip service to democracy on the one hand while on the other supporting dictators and reserving the right to act unilaterally, undemocratically, and forcefully naturally lead to a less stabilized world. That the US has a huge advantage in the world right now makes it the natural leader. It has two choices—leading toward a system of international law or playing the old game of might is right. Whatever course we choose, the world will follow. Thus it is that following the UN’s lead in Iraq is absolutely critical to setting the tone in international politics.