Ten years ago this Wednesday the United States, United Kingdom, and a few dozen smaller countries launched an invasion that would end in the hanging of Saddam Hussein, cost undetermined trillions of dollars, and damage the reputations of those who facilitated it. The anniversary may be the last opportunity for reflection, told-you-sos, revisionism, and apologies — a flood of which have been released over the past few days. With one notable exception: The news media has been largely silent on the role it played.
In the UK, fingers are primarily pointed at Washington, with a shrug and a dash of mea culpa. That country's former chief of defense and head of the army, Lord Guthrie, echoed a common refrain in telling The Guardian that "it was absolutely irresponsible to go in without thinking of the consequences." (That's a bit different than his opinion in 2002, when he argued in the House of Lords that "the time is approaching when we may have to join the US in operations against Iraq ... Strike soon, and the threat will be less and easier to handle.") Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge blamed then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's willingness to kowtow to President Bush, saying that "solidarity with the US was deeply embedded in his psyche." Another former head of the army, Lord Dannatt, echoed that argument.
"While I was privy to more intelligence information than most, I found what I read pretty uncompelling," Dannatt told The Guardian. But, he added: "People had to trust the judgment and integrity of the then prime minister."
Others with access to better intelligence found themselves similarly stymied by questionable political decision-making. At Wired's Danger Room blog, Nada Bakos outlines her work as an analyst at the CIA in the run-up to the war. Describing her group's efforts to prepare for a cross-examination from Cheney, Bakos writes:
In the abstract, challenging CIA’s analysis is a good thing: agency analysts get stuff wrong, as evidenced by Saddam’s non-WMD. But in this case, it was problematic. The nature of intelligence analysis is to gather as much information as possible to assist a policymaker in making difficult choices. If a policymaker has a preference for what the intelligence product should say, that pollutes the objectivity of the intelligence — and diminishes its value.
On Sunday, March 16, 2003, I watched Cheney on Meet The Press contradict our assessment publicly. … I found myself yelling at the TV like I was contesting a ref’s blown call in a football game.
David Frum, Bush's speechwriter during his first term, has a trickier line to walk but ends up where Bakos did. The architect of Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, Frum was the man responsible for helping Bush make the case for the war. In Newsweek, he suggests that he was in essence merely following pre-determined orders.
You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. There was certainly plenty to discuss: unlike the 1991 Gulf War, there was no immediate crisis demanding a rapid response; unlike Vietnam, the U.S. entered the war fully aware that it was commencing a major commitment.
Yet that discussion never really happened, not the way that most people would have imagined anyway. For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past.
Does he have regrets about his role? "It seems absurdly presumptuous to answer the question. I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me. And yet ... all of us who advocated for the war have had to do some reckoning."
Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Secretary of Defense as the war began, does a bit of reckoning in conversation with the Sunday Times — though it's mostly of the what-we-could-have-done-better variety. "I don’t want to get into the finger-pointing business," Wolfowitz says, as he proceeds to points all ten fingers: at Colin Powell, at those who suggest he was the war's "architect", as generals who wanted more "boots on the ground," in the now-classic turn of phrase. And Wolfowitz also takes issue with those ready to judge the war's legacy. "We still don’t know how all this is all going to end."
Americans, who paid most of the cost in tax dollars and lives, have largely already made up their minds. A Gallup poll, released today, shows that the majority of Americans believe sending troops into Iraq was a mistake — down slightly from a similar poll in 2010, but at about the same level as when President Obama took office.
That figure, like most others in American politics, differs along political lines. 73 percent of Democrats think sending in troops was a mistake compared to 30 percent of Republicans.
As costs continue to mount, those numbers may shift. Including costs borne in treatment of veterans, the final bill could top six trillion dollars — an amount just shy of twice the entire 2012 federal budget. The report that made that determination, conducted by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, indicates that we've already spent $1.7 trillion. The Special Investigator General for Iraq recently reported that at least $8 billion of the $60 billion spent on rebuilding alone was wasted; how much of the full bill went to unnecessary costs and fraud is unknown.
The media, the loudest voice in making the case for the war, hasn't been as forthcoming with its reflections. In February, MSNBC ran a documentary, Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, that touched on the media's role. But the quiet shoe-gazing has otherwise been remarkable. The Nation lists a number of the more egregious examples of cheerleading that have been unacknowledged. At Salon, Alex Pareene notes that there was no reflection on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday though, ten years ago, they were instrumental in presenting the case for action. The Times' Paul Krugman explains the mentality that allowed the media to offer uncritical reports.
The really striking thing, during the run-up to the war, was the illusion of consensus. To this day, pundits who got it wrong excuse themselves on the grounds that “everyone” thought that there was a solid case for war. Of course, they acknowledge, there were war opponents — but they were out of the mainstream.
The trouble with this argument is that it was and is circular: support for the war became part of the definition of what it meant to hold a mainstream opinion. Anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration. This was true in political circles; it was equally true of much of the press, which effectively took sides and joined the war party.
The paper, which has long been criticized for numerous front page articles based on bad information from the administration, did tackle its role in a 2004 op-ed.
[R]eviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time …
We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.
We'll see what the Times runs on Wednesday.