The War Fought Because We Could

The whole strange episode we’ve just gone through wherein everybody running for president had to answer a “knowing what we know now” question about the Iraq War and the missing WMD is obviously missing something else: the non-WMD factors leading to that war. Paul Krugman really nailed it in his latest column:

[T]hat’s a false narrative, and everyone who was involved in the debate over the war knows that it’s false. The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war.

The fraudulence of the case for war was actually obvious even at the time: the ever-shifting arguments for an unchanging goal were a dead giveaway. So were the word games — the talk about W.M.D that conflated chemical weapons (which many people did think Saddam had) with nukes, the constant insinuations that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11.

And at this point we have plenty of evidence to confirm everything the war’s opponents were saying. We now know, for example, that on 9/11 itself — literally before the dust had settled — Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, was already plotting war against a regime that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack. “Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] …sweep it all up things related and not”; so read notes taken by Mr. Rumsfeld’s aide.

Whether you opposed the war or not, Krugman’s right, even then it was clear this was a war most of the Bush team took office hoping–not necessarily expecting, but hoping–to wage (one reason often cited, which should have come up in Jeb Bush’s interview on the subject, was revenge for Saddam Hussein’s assassination attempt aimed at Poppy Bush). 9/11 changed public opinion in a way that suddenly made it feasible, and after that it was a matter of putting together a case that would bring along as many Democrats and “allies” as possible.

So the honest answer to the “knowing what we know now” question for a lot of war supporters would be: “As long as the public was ready to support military action against Arabs–any Arabs–the absence of a WMD rationale would have been a mere bump in the road to war.” It was a war America fought because suddenly we could.

What some of the respondents to the question are undoubtedly thinking about is a very different hypothetical: if they knew then what they know now about the nature and extent of the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, which steadily bled away public support for the whole nasty enterprise–no way they’d have supported it. But as Krugman notes, the people calling the shots didn’t want to know about the downside; Donald Rumsfeld famously took a thick State Department study on the challenges of a post-war occupation of Iraq and tossed it in the nearest trash can, unread.

From the Bush political clan’s POV, the Iraq War was a complete success far beyond the moment when it became clear there were no WMDs. It almost certainly clinched W.’s reelection because, after all, there were no further major terrorist attacks on the U.S. after the administration sent the military over there to kill a lot of Arabs; who cared which Arabs they were, really? If they had it all to do over, I suspect, they’d look for a much speedier exit plan, instead of calling those pushing for a speedier exit plan cowards and traitors. But let’s not pretend the whole “mistake” was about bad intelligence on WMDs.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.