Why We Opposed The War

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

Kevin Drum asks:

If anti-war liberals were right about the war from the start, how come they don’t get more respect? Here’s the nickel version of the answer from liberal hawks: It’s because they don’t deserve it. Sure, the war has gone badly, but not for the reasons the doves warned of.

Is this true? I wish my memory were more detailed about what anti-war liberals were saying back in 2002, but it’s not…

I know why I turned against the war after initially supporting it (WMD flakiness combined with the mounting evidence that Bush wasn’t serious about postwar reconstruction), but I don’t know about anyone else. So I can’t really play the game.

On the other hand, I think there’s a problem with Atrios’s response to Max Sawicky, who had chastised the early war opponents because he thought they had latched onto the wrong criticisms of the war. Here’s Atrios:

I’m sure all of these criticisms were made by many on blogs including mine, but they were just extra criticisms thrown in there in various ways in an attempt to engage the dominant discourse of the times.

….But nonetheless most people rejected the concept of "pre-emptive war" and rejected the notion that even if WMD claims were all correct Saddam was an actual threat in any way to this country. That was the point that I remember most of us desperately trying to communicate, even if other arguments were used to try to further the general cause of stopping the goddamn war.

Question: If this really was the primary critique among the anti-war left, has the Iraq war vindicated them?

I’m not sure I see it. The fact that Iraq is a clusterfuck doesn’t demonstrate that preemptive war is wrong any more than WWII demonstrated that wars using Sherman tanks are right. It’s the wrong unit of analysis. After all, Iraq didn’t fail because it was preemptive (though that didn’t help); it failed either because George Bush is incompetent or because militarized nation building in the 21st century is doomed to failure no matter who does it.

I wasn’t blogging then, although I would often get in online debates about it.  My reasons for opposing the war at the time were pretty much like everybody else of the "anti-war left", which were:

(1) I was not convinced that Saddam posed a threat to the United States.  The case for Saddam’s WMD struck me as appallingly weak.  And while I, like everybody else, couldn’t say for sure whether he had them, it seemed to me that there was a peaceful process underway — the U.N. inspections — to determine the nature and scope of "the threat" (if any). 

The nail in the coffin (for me) was Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, in which we were trying to sell the international community on the rationale of the "Saddam threat".  I thought the evidence was speculative at best.  More importantly, Powell undersold a lot of the "evidence" that Bush had been espousing to the public.  If Bush was making specific allegations against Saddam, and Powell was not making those representations at the U.N., it seemed to me there was a general disconnect in the "story" being laid out for the public.

I smelled a rat, and I was right.  On that point, I feel vindicated.

(2)  I felt the War in Iraq was a distraction from the actual "War on Terror".  I did not oppose the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime there.  Bin Laden was behind 9/11; Bin Laden was in Afghanistan; the Taliban in Afghanistan were protecting bin Laden.  It seemed to me that, in the wake of 9/11, we should be focussing on attacking al Qaeda and bin Laden, not Saddam and Iraq — neither of which had any connection to 9/11. 

On this latter point, the Administration’s case for a Saddam-bin Laden connection was even weaker than the WMD argument, and contradicted by known evidence at the time.  Saddam was a secular dictator whose power was threatened by Islamic fascists like bin Laden — this was well-known and documented for years before 9/11.  The attacks to our soil changed many things, but it did not change the fact that Saddam and bin Laden were enemies to each other.  Saddam was not part of the "War on Terror", and getting him would mean syphoning off our resources in getting bin Laden and weakening al Qaeda.

On that point, I feel vindicated.

Kevin Drum is somewhat right in saying that very few on the left (at the time) were criticizing the Iraq War because they thought it would fail.  In my online debates at the time, I expressed little doubt in our ability to "get Saddam" and roll over his rather weakened army.  I did, however, express concern about guerilla warfare, and difficulties of "what happens after".  In retrospect, I think I underestimated this aspect of the Iraq War, having had no idea how deep the tribal rifts of the Iraqi populace flow. 

In my defense, the argument of "instilling democracy" in Iraq was not one of the principle rationales given by the Bush Adminsitration for war.  Since they gave it little lip service, my objections to it were not as strong.  When I did, however, I questioned the success of bringing democratic institutions to a country and region in which democracy is a foreign and strange concept.  It had never worked before — certainly not by gunpoint — and it seemed a "pie-in-the-sky" concept that all we had to do was remove Saddam, and democracy would automaticcaly flourish.  I knew it simply couldn’t be that easy, and I said so at the time.  So, I feel somewhat vindicated that I got this right as well.

But Kevin is focusing on the strategic/operation failure of the war, whereas critics of the war back in 2002 were unable to opine on the military strategy simply because it was not known.  This raises the question of whether a war which lacks a legitimate causa belli can ever be a strategic success.  My inclination (and history bears me out) is that the answer is "no".  If policymakers can delude themselves about the correctness of the war, then they generally will delude themselves about the war’s strategic execution.  This is what happened in Iraq, and it’s a sober history lesson.  I hope people learn it before they trust their leadership again.


Tom Tomorrow (4/1/03)

UPDATE:  Digby addresses Drum as well.  So does Publius, who says what I say (only better):

Speaking for myself, I opposed the war not so much because I was dead certain I had all the facts right, but because of my increasingly-intense skepticism of the broader context in which the pro-war argument was being made.

In other words, something just smelled funny about the whole thing — and I think this “smell” should have had right-thinking people jumping off the bus by March 2003.  More after the jump (my very first by the way).

To begin, I didn’t really like the subtle burden-shifting that went on from August 2002 to March 2003.  In a short amount of time, the burden of proof shifted from war supporters to war opponents based not on hard evidence, but on emotion-based fear-mongering.

But even more troubling was how quickly the nation accepted war.  In July 2002, Iraq was not even on the public’s radar.  By the end of September 2002, the country had embraced war and lapsed into a nationalistic frenzy.  We went from zero to sixty in approximately two months. That’s disturbing for a number of reasons, but primarily because it shows how easy it is to start a “top-down” war (i.e., a war that was not demanded by the public, but was imposed upon it).  Anyway, it just seemed odd that America was wholly oblivious to such mortal danger just two months earlier.  Bottom line — the speed with which we rushed to war should have given more people pause.

There was also the politicized nature of it.  The pro-war arguments might have been more persuasive if they hadn’t been incorporated into a GOP election strategy based on accusing me of treason.  The reason all this matters is that elections are about advocacy rather than empiricism.  Candidates spin facts in ways that help them — they’re not worried about presenting objective truth to the public.  Thus, given that the White House so heavily involved with incorporating Iraq into the GOP’s 2002 political strategy was the very same White House spitting out inflammatory facts about the dangers of Saddam, there was good reason to be skeptical. 


I think the more troubling question for pro-war liberals is not so much why they supported the war, but why they supported going to war at that time.  In other words, why not wait?  I’m willing to concede that if Saddam developed nuclear weapons, and if he was BFFs with al Qaeda, war makes sense.  But none of that explains why we had to go in with guns a’blazin’ in March 2003. There were, after all, boatloads of reasons to be skeptical of those factual assertions — and those reasons increased with each passing day.

Perhaps one of the best responses comes via Roy Edroso:

Speaking only for myself — as someone who is decidedly not a dove, but who thought this war was a bad idea from the beginning — I make no claim to analytical or any other kind of brilliance. If anything, I just have a lick of common sense, drummed into me by my late mother, who did not trust fancy salesmen who refrained from showing their merchandise; this trained me to look askance upon a war against someone who hadn’t attacked us, justified only by the assertions of untrustworthy Republican poltroons.