George Orwell wrote somewhere that a good way to maintain a sense of humility is to keep a diary of your political opinions. Looking back on what you thought five or ten years before will remind you of your fallibility.
The United States and its Coalition partners began military operations against Iraq 10 years ago today. I didn’t keep a diary, but I well remember what I thought then.
I was aware that the claims that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction were based on faked evidence. I knew that far from being implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the secular nationalist Saddam was hated by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. I feared that starting a war on the basis of a lie could come back to haunt us Americans, and yet I hoped it might turn out well.
This would not have been the first war launched by the United States on the basis of a lie. The Mexican War was started on the basis of the lie that Mexican troops had fired on American troops on American soil. The Spanish-American War was started on the basis of the lie that the Spanish blew up the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. The Vietnam intervention was authorized on the basis of the lie that the North Vietnamese had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Yet the first two of these wars turned out well—that is, well from the American perspective, not from the point of view of the victims of aggression.
I thought it possible that the Iraq invasion would turn out well for all concerned. Iraq was ruled by a cruel and hated dictator. I thought that after U.S. forces liberated Iraq from the dictator, Iraq would become a country whose people were friendly to the United States, and whose rulers would be more dependable military allies and oil suppliers than the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the United States had been waging a low-level war against Iraq for more than 10 years, following Operation Desert Storm in 1991. All through the Clinton administration, Iraq was under economic blockade, with intermittent bombing, which had caused enormous hardship and suffering. I thought that the human suffering from a quick invasion.
The George W. Bush administration quickly proved me wrong. Military forces occupied the Iraqi oil ministry and oil fields, and let the rest of the country sink into chaos. Local Iraqi leaders were pushed aside, and U.S. appointees installed in their place. For some reason, the Iraqi military was disbanded, but individual soldiers were allowed to keep their weapons, when the obviously sensible thing to do would have been to confiscate the weapons but keep the soldiers on a payroll and under control. American commanders installed themselves in some of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, and sent prisoners to his old torture chamber in Abu Ghraib.
But even if the Bush administration had been sincerely interested in creating a democratic Iraq, this probably would not have been feasible for a foreign invading army to do. I went through the same stages in my thinking about Iraq that I did about Vietnam, but over a shorter period of time—from thinking U.S. policy was flawed but justified to thinking that U.S. policy was a big mistake to thinking that U.S. policy was a crime. Of course it should have been obvious in both cases that unleashing total war on a small country that does not threaten you is a crime.
I was wrong about Iraq, and wiser friends of mine were right. Now I was not a decision-maker, or even, in those days, a blogger. My wrongness had few consequences. But I am an American citizen. Politicians ultimately answer to the citizens. I have my small share of the responsibility for the Iraq tragedy.