Opinionista Ivo Vegter 24 March 2015

Twelve years on: I was wrong about the Iraq War

Last week was the 12th anniversary of the 19 March 2003 invasion of Iraq, by a “coalition of the willing” led by the United States. At the time, despite considerable reservations, I supported the war, and defended the politicians who bumbled their way into it. I was wrong to do so.

I still clearly remember the build-up to the Iraq War, 12 years ago. I was about to turn 32, and although I worked as a technology journalist, I had been following international and US politics very closely. I was honing my skills on electronic mailing lists, before graduating to a blog.

Supporting the Iraq invasion was not a popular position to take, but I’ve never measured my opinions against popularity.

My reasons for supporting the invasion were complex. The 9/11 attacks had shaken me deeply, and I implicitly supported efforts to combat the Islamist extremism from which such terror sprang. This was not a matter of prejudice. I would have felt the same way about any other brand of extremism that commits terrorism deliberately targeted at civilians.

I understood that Iraq was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or any other attacks outside its immediate neighbourhood since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Saddam Hussein regime was despicable, however, and an invasion made some strategic sense. If the US wanted to establish a beachhead for secular democracy in the turbulent Middle East, then Iraq seemed a logical place to begin.

I did not accept the argument that the US was hypocritical because it supported Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Who supported whom during the Cold War is not relevant in a post-Cold-War world. (The same is true for the Afghan mujahedeen.)

Yet I was troubled about the reasons being cited for the invasion. I felt there were too many, and although most seemed valid, such vagueness did not sit well with me. When they finally did pick a hook to hang the war on, I thought they picked the wrong one. Making weapons of mass destruction allegations stick would be much harder than, for example, citing Iraq’s breach of ceasefire conditions or citing the brutal repression of Iraq’s civilian population.

I’ve long had a problem with reflexive anti-Americanism, or anti-Western sentiment. I believe the West, for all its faults, has been instrumental in bringing progress, prosperity and peace to a world that has too long been cursed with war, oppression and poverty. That is not to deny the contributions that other civilisations have made to the modern world, nor do I wish to absolve the West of all its sins. However, it made no sense to me to tear America down simply because it is big and successful.

I have also always accepted that war is an ugly thing. When was becomes necessary, it is naïve to believe that everything will go as planned, or that there will not be civilian casualties. As it is, modern warfare causes fewer casualties than ever before, even though television brings us much closer to the horror.

In short, I was willing to give America the benefit of the doubt. The UK, Australia, and 38 other countries supported the US, which did not harm its case.

Even afterwards, when little evidence was found that Iraq had biological or chemical weapons programmes, I thought absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Again, I gave America the benefit of the doubt. I even had a theory about what happened to the WMDs, and was convinced that Hussein either had them or would have developed them if given half a chance. The guy was a brutal thug who deserved no sympathy.

When the US government demonstrated that nobody had thought much about post-war occupation and reconstruction, I was dismayed, but hopeful that other nations with more experience would help. When sectarian violence flared up, I explained it as one of the risks of war.

Even when allegations of lies and deceit were hurled – like shoes – at US president George W Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, I put it down to vicious partisan politicking. I trusted that the US government could support its reasons for going to war. I did not think CIA director George Tenet would call the case a “slam dunk” if he wasn’t pretty sure of his facts.

As much as governments screw up, I thought, the US has largely been a force for good in the world. I trusted that it would, for the most part, live by the principles of truth, liberty and justice that it espoused.

Saddam Hussein was a common thug. If oil was the issue, as many of Bush’s detractors have claimed, you could simply buy it off him. Besides, the oil price went up, not down, after the invasion. I could not conceive of a government that would throw thousands of lives and billions of dollars at a problem that they could have solved much more cheaply by doing business with Saddam Hussein.

When the libertarian Ron Paul became a Republican candidate for the US presidency, he stridently espoused non-interventionism. I questioned whether he spoke for all libertarians, since he did not speak for me. His anti-war stance seemed like simplistic idealism to me, and wholly inadequate as a response to the evils and injustice we see around the world.

And so, for many years, I looked upon the Iraq invasion as a bungled but justified attempt to depose its tyrant and free its people. Declassified documents released two years ago, on the war’s tenth anniversary, showed that “the US invasion of Iraq turned out to be a textbook case of flawed assumptions, wrong-headed intelligence, propaganda manipulation, and administrative ad hockery.”

As splendid a term as “ad hockery” is, it does not mean “they lied”. Still, I was glad not to be asked to defend the war all that often. And always, that realisation left a nagging sense that I had not fully resolved the question for myself.

Two things have changed recently that made me firmly change my mind and admit that I have been wrong all these years.

The first is the unmasking of the US National Security Agency and the British General Communications Headquarters, by Edward Snowden’s revelations. This proved that one ought not to give any government the benefit of the doubt, and one cannot take even the US and the UK on good faith. They cannot be trusted to protect or promote individual freedom.

This squares with my political convictions, which have become increasingly libertarian over the years. My willingness to trust government – any government – has been deeply eroded both by my ideological principles and by their actions, military and otherwise. Although I am not an anarchist, I believe governments pose a genuine danger to civilians at home and abroad, and this is especially true when they wield their monopoly on force.

The second was last week’s declassification and publication of a less redacted version of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, on which the US decision to go to war was based. The document, which synthesised the views of multiple intelligence agencies, is a mess of speculation, uncertainty and self-contradiction. In several cases, alternative assessments are offered that contradict the estimates in the main document. In other cases, the judgments are accompanied by notes pointing out contradictory evidence. In all, it is very far from a “slam dunk”. Even for “high confidence” claims, no hard evidence is cited, apparently because of the success of Iraq’s “denial and deception” efforts.

For these reasons, I cannot sustain the belief that the US government might have bungled the Iraq War, but did not lie about it. I simply cannot reconcile the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq.

The invasion might have been justifiable purely in terms of the threat Hussein posed to Iraq’s neighbours and its people, but it was sold on other premises, which were not supported by the evidence. I can no longer say they cocked it up but they were right to go to war. They were not, and I was wrong to argue with those who said so.

No doubt, I’ll be told “we told you so”. It’s easy to say, with hindsight, that I was naïve. That may be true, and I’ve certainly learned not to give any government the benefit of the doubt again. Yet many of the knee-jerk anti-war talking points were simplistic and motivated by malice, prejudice and politics, rather than reason. The anti-war arguments were based on weak evidence, too. There were good reasons why I was disinclined to join the howling masses of protesters then, and I’d still be disinclined to join them today.

Far from clarifying my position on war, this case merely muddies it. I’m no anarchist and I’m no pacifist. Beyond self-defence, I’m willing to accept that interventionist wars, in defence of someone else, can sometimes be justified. I can’t say Saddam Hussein did not have it coming. I have lost trust in the US and UK governments, but I have not gained trust in any others. Nor have I gained any faith in the ability of the United Nations to impose peace upon the world.

This is not a helpful precedent for deciding future cases. Should someone intervene in the Russian aggression towards the Ukraine? On whose authority? If Putin makes a snack of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, should it be resisted? Who can justifiably act against the evils committed by the Islamic State? How should the world deal with the breeding grounds of terrorism?

If we cannot trust the good guys to be good, who will stop the bad guys being bad? DM



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