Opinion

Why liberals tell themselves comforting fables about the Iraq War

Did George W. Bush lie the U.S. into invading Iraq? Not so fast.

Thanks to the presence of a deeply conflicted (or confused) Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential race, Americans are being treated to the umpteenth round of accusations and recriminations about the Iraq War in the 12 years since Bush's brother decided it would be a splendid idea to topple Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and use the country as a staging ground for spreading freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.

In case you've been dozing for a dozen years, or lack the intellectual sophistication of a moderately well-informed college student, the Grand Plan isn't working out too well.

That's bad — though I'd be at least somewhat consoled if politicians and commentators on either side of the aisle showed signs of having learned the right lessons from this world-historical debacle. But no. The Republicans have tripled down on their toughness shtick, insisting against the continent-sized pile of contrary evidence that the world is better off without Hussein in power. (Better for whom, one might ask? The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who've been killed in the convulsions of violence we unleashed by deposing Hussein? The even greater number of Iraqis, especially Iraqi Christians, who've been displaced by that violence? The people suffering under the Islamic State across wide swaths of western Iraq? The mullahs of Iran who've seen their primary regional rival reduced to an anarchic mess?)

But you know what's even more maddening than the GOP's paroxysms of denial?

The insistence of leading liberals that the Bush administration lied the U.S. into war by deliberately overstating the threat that Hussein and his nonexistent stockpile of weapons of mass destruction posed to America and the region.

David Brooks called this story a "fable" in a recent column, and that's exactly what it is. Did George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the administration go out of their way to make Hussein sound dangerous? Sure they did. Did they sometimes sound more certain of the details of that threat than they in fact were? No doubt.

But talk of lying insinuates far worse than this. It insinuates that senior members of the Bush administration, including the president himself, knew for a fact that Hussein wasn't a threat and that he didn't possess WMD — and then deliberately set out to make it look like the opposite was true in order to get the country to pursue a war that they knew to be unjustified.

That is itself a lie.

How do I know? Because I was a sentient observer of American politics in the late 1990s and early years of the 2000s. I read or listened in real time to most of the statements quoted in this useful Larry Elder column from 2006. Bill Clinton in 1998 and 2003; Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in February 1998; Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger in 1998; Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 1998; General Wesley Clark in 2002; Sen. John Rockefeller in 2002; French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 — all of them, and many more, expressed the overwhelming consensus of the Washington elite of both parties that Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD and that this made him a serious threat both to our allies in the region and the United States itself.

After the September 11 attacks, some members of the Washington elite concluded that this threat was now unacceptable — that Hussein had to be taken out by force of arms. I disagreed with them, despite working at the time for a conservative magazine that strongly endorsed the invasion. Did I do so because I thought the Bush administration was lying? No, not for a second. Very little of what I was hearing and reading at the time sounded different than what I'd been hearing and reading for years. Like just about every Democrat and Republican in Washington, I assumed Hussein maintained a covert WMD program and probably possessed stockpiles of such weapons.

I opposed the invasion of Iraq because I thought it was stupid. Because I thought Hussein could be deterred. And because I found the more idealistic rationales for war (like transforming the country into a democratic oasis in the region) wildly implausible.

That was enough. More than enough.

Twelve years later, rather than doing the hard work of figuring out why so many Democrats (including the party's presumptive presidential nominee in 2016) made the unwise decision to support the invasion, liberals have decided to go easy on themselves by treating the Bush administration not as foolish but as sinister, conniving, evil. What a relief it must be to exonerate oneself from complicity in a catastrophic mistake by portraying oneself as an innocent victim of a diabolical plot.

But there was no plot. Just understandable but unjustified fear of a dictator providing terrorists with dangerous weapons — and of political opponents using a "no" vote to portray Democrats as too wimpy to protect the American homeland against its enemies.

It's long past time for both parties to leave behind their comforting fables about Iraq.

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