Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Programming Note

Flickr/Hernán Piñera

We just celebrated our 25th anniversary here at The American Prospect, and I've been writing for the magazine for half that time—my first piece for the Prospect appeared in late 2002, and since then I've written thousands of articles, columns and blog posts. But all things must change, and starting Monday, I will no longer be writing this blog. The good news is that I won't be going away completely—I'll still be doing a weekly column, which will appear every Monday. But if you need a daily fix of whatever I have to offer, you can head over to The Washington Post's Plum Line blog, where I've been writing for the last year or so, and The Week, where I'll now be a near-daily columnist.

Thanks for reading!

Photo of the Day, Another Brick In the Wall Edition

A visitor at an exhibition of artist Nathan Sawaya's Lego sculptures in Paris takes a moment to reflect. Are we all merely collections of interchangeable blocks, formed into temporary coherence only to be disassembled before we slip into the eternal void? Who is real, and who is the simulacrum? Will there be Lego-shaped candy bars in the gift shop? These are the questions we ask ourselves, only to find that the universe is mute, mocking us with its silence.

Now It's Time For Hillary Clinton to Answer Some Questions About the Iraq War

Jeb Bush has now been bludgeoned into submission on Iraq, a development that is remarkable when you step back and look at how quickly the Republican consensus on that topic has changed. Two weeks ago you wouldn't have predicted that most of the Republicans would now say the war should never have been launched, but that's where we've come, mostly because of the eagerness of Bush's opponents to make him squirm. Now that he's come around, it's time for some other people to answer questions about the Iraq War—not just what they should have or would have done in 2002 and 2003, but what they've learned since. And that means Hillary Clinton.

Much as she might enjoy watching Jeb Bush suffer, Clinton is surely none too eager to talk about this topic, given that in all likelihood she would have been elected president in 2008 had it not been for Iraq. But she needs to be asked questions about it—lots of them.

Clinton wouldn't have any trouble with the "If we knew now then what we know now" question, because that's how she has explained her Iraq vote for years, saying that hindsight shows that her vote in favor of the 2002 war resolution was wrong. But she ought to answer why she didn't know then.

Republicans would like us all to believe that in 2002 and 2003 everyone was in agreement that Iraq posed a terrifying threat to the United States and if we didn't invade, then they would surely attack us with their fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But this is just false. Despite the unstoppable momentum for war, dissent was everywhere at the time.

As I wrote yesterday, the idea that the war was a result of "faulty intelligence" is a myth. The fact is that "the intelligence" on Iraq was a multi-faceted thing, and even at the time people understood that the Bush administration was manipulating it to its own ends, pressuring the intelligence community, cherry-picking the most nefarious-sounding bits, and ignoring the weight of evidence that there was no gigantic arsenal of WMD in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein's government was not in fact in league with al-Qaeda. The administration got the intelligence it demanded, and what's most important to remember now is that plenty of people understood that at the time. While most of the media were beating the drums for war, there were outlets and individual reporters raising doubts about the line the administration was pushing and the specific pieces of evidence they were offering. Supposedly damning pieces of information like the uranium yellowcake from Niger and the aluminum tubes were quickly debunked. There was an active movement protesting the upcoming war. The administration's campaign of fear was so heavy-handed that no observer could doubt that they wanted war at all costs, no matter what the evidence actually said.

And many of Clinton's colleagues were not fooled. Twenty-one of the 50 Democrats then in the Senate voted against the war resolution, as did 126 of the 209 Democrats in the House. And let's not mince words about those who voted in favor of the war: It was, above all, an act of cowardice. They were afraid they'd be called unpatriotic, just as so many already had in the wake of September 11. They were afraid the war would be quick and easy like the first Gulf War, and they'd look foolish for doubting it. And most of all, the ones who wanted to run for president—including Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, and Joe Biden—were afraid they'd be attacked as weak, just as previous Democratic presidential candidates were. So they voted to give George W. Bush permission to go to war, with catastrophic consequences.

Republicans often defend their support of the war by saying that many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, looked at the same intelligence they did and came to the same conclusion. But it's also true, as Greg Sargent pointed out, that many of Clinton's colleagues looked at the same intelligence she did and came to a different conclusion. So what did she miss? What did the experience teach her about the way intelligence is produced and used? And what about everything that happened afterward?

I'm not particularly worried that Clinton is gung-ho to start another Middle East war, as some of the Republicans running for president seem to be. But the Iraq War continues to cast a long shadow over American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton got it wrong. We deserve to know as much as we can about why that was, how she thinks about her mistake today, and what kind of effect it would have on her decision-making if she becomes president. 

Photo of the Day, Men In Shorts Firing Antique Guns Edition

This picture comes from the celebration in Bavaria of Christi Himmelfahrt, marking the ascension of Christ to heaven. What does Jesus have to do with firing antique guns into the air while wearing traditional Bavarian outfits? I have no idea, but that guy in the middle isn't having nearly as much fun as he ought to be.  

The Myth of 'Faulty Intelligence'

The Iraq War, both how it began and how it proceeded, is now an active topic in the 2016 presidential campaign, which I think is a highly salutary development. But it does mean that we need to be on guard for the kind of distortions, misleading statements, and outright lies that characterized this debate from its very start in 2002. As you've heard by now, the Republican Party is currently divided over whether, knowing what we know now, we should ever have launched the war. Most of the Republican presidential candidates are (to my surprise, I'll admit), saying the answer is of course not, while Jeb Bush is saying that he really doesn't want to say, because doing so would be a "disservice" to the troops (which would only be true if he also thinks the answer is no).

One thing they all agree on, though, is that for better or worse the whole thing happened because of "faulty intelligence." If only America's intelligence agencies hadn't screwed up so badly, then everyone wouldn't have been convinced of what a terrifying threat Iraq was to America, and the whole thing would never have happened. Jeb Bush himself said that one of the most important lessons to take from the war is, "If you're going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible and the intelligence broke down." But the intelligence didn't "break down."

You can't understand the decisions that led to the Iraq War without grasping just how incredibly politicized the intelligence process had become in the months before the war. Every piece of intelligence that passed through the American government was subject to different interpretations depending on who was looking at it, and throughout there was intense pressure on people within the intelligence community to deliver to the senior people in the Bush administration—the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and others—exactly what everybody knew they wanted.

And what they wanted was war. Today, Republicans act as though the intelligence community burst into the Oval Office and said, "Mr. President, Mr. President, Iraq is a terrible threat, and if we don't invade we're doomed!" and then Bush said, "Gee, if you say so, I guess we'd better." But it worked the other way around.

Taking out Saddam Hussein was a priority for many of the senior people in the administration from the moment they took office, and after September 11 it was amped up into a public campaign that can go by no other name but propaganda. When those in the intelligence community saw the administration's leaders on TV talking about how Iraq was in cahoots with al-Qaeda and had all kinds of ghastly weapons, you better believe they got the message right quick.

Much of the pressure was informal and much of it came from the understandable desire not to miss something that could lead to another 9/11, but there were practical ways in which "the intelligence" was distorted to serve the administration's purposes as well. For instance, there was a special office within the Department of Defense, staffed by neoconservatives long committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, whose job was to cherry-pick intelligence snippets that could be used to paint a picture of a terribly threatening Iraq, then send it up the chain to be used by senior officials in their public persuasion efforts. The administration even pressured CIA interrogators to torture detainees in a futile effort to produce "evidence" of a link between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda.

So it isn't correct to say "the intelligence" about Iraq was wrong, even if there were specific bits of information that turned out to be false. The truth is that the Bush administration hyped every bit of intelligence it could find that could be presented as proving that Iraq presented a dire threat, while downplaying any information or conclusion that pointed in the other direction.

Yet if there was anything that characterized the administration and its defenders during the run-up to the war, it was confidence, their absolute certainty that the case for the existence of Saddam's WMD arsenal was iron-clad and the war would go precisely according to plan. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us," said Dick Cheney in a key speech in August 2002. "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn't any debate about it," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war," said Bill Kristol. And of course, Cheney insisted that "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

To hear Republicans tell it today, it wasn't just the administration but everyone who believed that at the time, yet this too is false. While many Democrats cast a craven vote in favor of the war, there were plenty of people at the time warning that the evidence for WMDs was shaky and that we were headed for a disaster that would play out over the course of years, just as it did. For instance, reporters from Knight-Ridder produced a series of articles casting serious doubts on the WMD claims. In the fall of 2002, months before the war began, James Fallows published a long article in the The Atlantic entitled "The Fifty-First State?" based on interviews with dozens of experts who painted a grim picture of what lay ahead. "Merely itemizing the foreseeable effects of a war with Iraq suggests reverberations that would be felt for decades," Fallows wrote. "If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can't imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most."

So let's make no mistake: "Faulty intelligence" didn't produce the deaths of 4,000 American servicemembers and a couple of hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. Faulty intelligence didn't strengthen Iran's position in the region, lead to an exponential increase in anti-Americanism, and give rise to ISIS. It was the delusions, deceptions, and hubris of the Bush administration and its supporters. They got exactly the intelligence they demanded, and used it to ends they had decided on long before.

This history is absolutely critical to understand today, because if the only lesson politicians take from Iraq is "make sure the intelligence is right" then they will have learned nothing. And when the time comes to decide what to do about Iran or Syria or some other foreign policy challenge, we'll be no less likely to go hurtling down into another nightmare that will take years to crawl out of.