On March 19, two weeks from now, it will be ten years since the United States military commenced the invasion of Iraq. Even though some details are fading from memory, one bit that sticks in my mind—those final days before the war and its dramatic countdown, the 48 hours George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons to get themselves out of the country. It was a fitting end to the pre-war campaign, some theatricality to lend an extra bit of drama to a conflict conceived in delusion and sold in deception. This anniversary is a good time to remind ourselves of what happened then and how so many of the people who continue to shape our public debate behaved.
The campaign to sell America on an invasion of Iraq was probably the most comprehensive and dishonest propaganda effort our country has seen in the last century. As we discuss it over the next few weeks, those who continue to hold that it was a good idea—akin to saying to this day that the Titanic was unsinkable—will claim that though there was certainly bad intelligence, the Bush administration did not actually lie about Iraq, that their intentions were good and they forthrightly made their case to protect America.
Don't let them get away with it, not for a second. The truth is that they planned and executed a campaign designed to muddle heads and bring terror to hearts, one so shameless we may never see its like again (if only the plan for war itself had been constructed with such care). It was an all-hands-on-deck effort, with Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice and so many others trotted out to deceive and dissemble, mislead and misdirect. The examples are so numerous we can't even scratch the surface here, but for the flavor, let me refer you to the speech Dick Cheney gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 26, 2002.
Cheney said, "The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents. And they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago." These assertions were obviously false. Saddam's fictional nuclear program, Cheney warned, would come to fruition before you knew it, and then, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail. Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
Be afraid, they said over and over again. They warned of "mushroom clouds" over U.S. cities. They spun fictions of Iraqi involvement with the September 11 attacks. And 4,000 dead Americans later (not to mention at least 100,000 dead Iraqis) and a couple of trillion dollars spent, after Fallujah and Abu Ghraib and untold damage to America's image in the world, many of them still—yes, still—claim it was a terrific idea.
But that's all ancient history, isn't it? What's the point of rehashing it now? Yes, most of the Bush administration officials responsible have moved on to various cushy sinecures. But rest assured, the next time Republicans control the executive branch, many will be back in positions of power. And the amen chorus that made the propaganda campaign such a success is right where it was a decade ago, populating the nation's op-ed pages and television panels. In the coming days they'll be telling the same old story, as will some of those Bush aides, interviewed again for the occasion. Dick Cheney will no doubt slither out of his subterranean lair to snarl that anyone who thinks the war was anything but a glorious victory must be a secret Saddam-lover.
So you'll forgive those of us who were right about Iraq if this anniversary brings up some raw feelings. Let's remember that the people who were so apocalyptically wrong—both those who knew they were lying, and those who bought and resold the lies—not only helped America into disaster. While pushing the country toward chaos, they attacked anyone who disagreed with the most scurrilous of charges, calling the war's opponents naïve fools at best and outright traitors at worst. And then what happened? Not only was there nothing resembling accountability for the people who planned, executed, and cheered the war, quite the opposite: they were all rewarded, many quite handsomely. Bush and Cheney won a second term. Paul Wolfowitz became president of the World Bank. Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer, the pair of bumblers whose disastrous decisions cost so many people their lives, were each given the Medal of Freedom, as was George "slam dunk" Tenet, who so confidently assured the administration and the country that the case for war was airtight. The pundits who filled page after page and hour after broadcast hour with falsehood and calumny, the Kristols and Krauthammers and so many others, barely saw their reputations nicked, and today their sage analysis on why we ought to do the whole thing over again in Iran is given a respectful hearing and not the mockery it deserves.
As James Fallows says, this is a good time for everyone who had a public voice at the time to reckon with what they believed, what they accepted, and what they said and argued at the time. As David Brooks wrote, "the idea that we should pay attention to the people who took the last invasion of Iraq and turned that military triumph into a stunning political defeat, is simply mind-boggling." Those people, he said, "should live in ignominy" and "hide in disgrace," but "instead ride high. It is an amazing example of the establishment’s ability to protect their most incompetent members."
True, Brooks was writing in September 2002, and the targets of his disdain were veterans of the George H.W. Bush administration, whose enthusiasm for another Iraq war Brooks deemed insufficiently vigorous. But his point is nevertheless well taken. One day, another administration will come before the country proposing that we start another war. They'll swear that we have no choice, that our very survival is at stake, that their motives are pure and their words are true. They'll promise, as the Bush administration did, that it will be easy and neat and cost us little in lives and dollars. They'll say that the blowback will be minimal, and assure us that there are no unforeseen consequences to worry about. And they will find enthusiastic support among the pundit class, with more than a few enlistees ready to amplify every absurd claim and heap contempt on anyone who would raise a voice in dissent. When that time comes, we should all try to remember what happened ten years ago.