For the past week, the media (and especially late night comedians) have been having a bit of fun poking Jeb Bush as he repeatedly stumbled over the family albatross, AKA: Iraq. Over on his beat at The Plum Line, Greg Sargent was one of the few journalists or widely-read opinion columnists to point out that getting any politician, at this late date (even Jeb), to declare that if they knew then what we know now, they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, is the wrong question to be asking because it lets all of them off the hook far too easily:
The basic premise that this challenge to Jeb reinforces is that the Iraq War happened only because of bad intelligence. George W. Bush was misled by intelligence failures, and it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” In this framing, the question becomes: Will you admit that you were misled into supporting a war that everyone now agrees in hindsight was an unnecessary and tragic mistake?
the better question is: Are you willing to admit that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq based on what was known at the time? Or at least that those making the case against the invasion at the time got it right, and that you got it wrong, even though you had access to the same evidence, in real time, that they did?
Exactly. Hindsight’s 20/20, etc, and it’s always easy to say what you’d have done with the benefit of it. The real test of a politician is: did you get (or would you have gotten) it right at the time? Allowing them to answer the easier question does a disservice to voters trying to decide who will perform adequately under fire should a similar crucible of weighty decisions befall them.
In what I think may be the most fascinating interview of and discussion with one of the actual architects of the Iraq war maybe ever, Sam Stein at the Huffington Post catches Richard Perle, AKA “Prince of Darkness,” saying essentially the same thing:
The former Defense Department adviser, who was one of the key figures crafting the policy for invasion in 2003, isn’t interested in what what politicians today would do if they could go back in time and vote on the authorization. Far more important, he says, is what they would have done in that specific moment, with that specific intelligence, in that political climate.
By itself, this statement from Perle isn’t particularly remarkable. In fact, the people who actually helped make the decision to go to war in Iraq are usually among the very few who are eager ask people: “sure, if you knew then what you know now — but what would you have done with the information we had at the time,” because of course the last thing any of them want to admit is that they were wrong at the time to proceed with the war, and they hope people will be forced by such a challenge to exonerate the decision-makers who chose to go to war. Ordinarily, the follow-up to such a statement or challenge from an Iraq war architect is a rehash of the stale ideas they floated in 2002/3 – intel suggesting WMD capacity, bringing democracy to the region, what a terrible guy Hussein was, etc.
In short, asking this question will (they believe) let them off the hook and “prove” you would have done the same thing, in their place, and therefore, they were right to invade, despite what a disaster the Iraq war clearly turned out to have been. It’s an aggressive version of the “who could have known?” defense. And indeed, Perle almost perfunctorily makes such cases with Stein, as I’m sure he’s felt compelled to do ever since 2003 whenever he’s asked on the record.
What makes the interview so fascinating is that Perle, for whatever reason, doesn’t stop after having trotted out the weak-sauce ’02/’03-contemporaneous rationale for war. Perle – and I can’t for the life of me decide if I think he does so intentionally or inadvertently – bulls on and says the following to Stein (emphasis mine):
At some point you have to make a decision. The decision was a tentative one. It was not to invade. It was to be prepared. And then when Saddam failed to provide the information, you could have asked yourself: ‘Well, do you want to stand down? He hasn’t given us the information. It is not 100 percent. Do we want to stand down?’ And I think the answer at that time clearly was ‘No, we don’t want to stand down.’ The evidence is strong enough and the cost of standing down would be not delaying for a week or two, but essentially abandoning the capacity.
Got that? In the end, the reason the “brain trust” of the Bush administration went to war was: because we could. Because they’d been planning for war in ways that took money and time, for months, and therefore standing down at the 11th hour would’ve meant wasting that capacity to wage war they’d built up over those past months. Money (in the billions) would’ve been wasted and they’d have looked foolish, indecisive and (I’m sure they worried; it’s a conservative’s worst worry) weak. So they went to war because by this time, they pretty much felt had to — heck, they’d always wanted to anyway…and they’d convinced themselves “the evidence was strong enough.”
Except, of course, that the evidence wasn’t “strong enough” — and there were very credible people at the time (as Sargent said in his piece) who “were publicly shouting themselves hoarse, pointing out at the time that, at the very least, there were serious questions about whether Iraq really posed the threat the Bush administration claimed it did.” That’s the reason we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq: not because the intel “turned out later to have been flawed,” not “knowing what we know now,” but because not only was it knowable at the time that the WMD intel was bad, but even if Hussein had had WMD, Iraq had not been involved in 9/11 and attacking Iraq then would be, as history has demonstrated, disastrous in many ways.
This interview with Perle represents the first time I’m aware of when one of the actual architects of the Iraq war has actually come out, whether inadvertently or intentionally, and admitted that more or less straight-up. The only other time I can remember someone who wasn’t a war opponent saying anything remotely similar was this:
Fuck you, Tom. And Richard, And George and Dick and Paul and Douglas. Fuck you for the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and for the other lives permanently scarred or ruined. Fuck you for the loss of goodwill towards our country. Fuck you for the loss of trillions of dollars we could have spent here and abroad making the world better, safer, more educated, healthier, adequately-fed. Fuck you for the domestic deepening of cynicism, jingoistic warmongering, and fear. Fuck. You.
But thank you, Richard Perle, for at least finally actually saying out loud on the record what we already knew — even if you didn’t mean to: you (we) went into Iraq because we could.