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.