Ten years ago this month, the United States invaded Iraq in a war that was sold on the basis of some truly absurd lies. James Fallows, one of the nation’s best journalists and an early opponent of the war, has a review of how we got there and how we’ve suffered for it. For one thing, he says, the neo-cons who got us into the war have suffered little for it:
2) Accountability. For a decade or more after the Vietnam war, the people who had guided the U.S. to disaster decently shrank from the public stage. Robert McNamara did worthy penance at the World Bank. Rusk, Rostow, Westmoreland were not declaiming on what the U.S. should and should not do.
After Iraq, there has been a weird amnesty and amnesia about people’s misjudgment on the most consequential decision of our times. Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 primary race largely because she had been “wrong” on Iraq and Barack Obama had been “right.” But Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, Rice, McCain, Abrams, and others including the pro-war press claque are still offering their judgments unfazed. In his post-presidential reticence George W. Bush has been an honorable exception.
I don’t say these people should never again weigh in. But there should be an asterisk on their views, like the fine print about side effects in pharmaceutical ads.
Not only did those people lie flagrantly to justify the war, they also vastly understated what it would cost. When Gen. Eric Shinseki testified in front of Congress that the war would require hundreds of thousands of troops and cost hundreds of billions of dollars, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz called a press conference to mock that claim, calling it “wildly off the mark.” And it was; the cost was, in fact, far higher than even Shinseki imagined. The cost of that war is already over a trillion dollars and likely to be double that with all the spending on veteran care over the next few decades.
Wolfowitz was also the one who said that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction, that their oil profits would pay for the whole thing. That turned out to be a pipe dream. Every single thing these people said was wrong about every single aspect of the war. And yet they are still taken seriously. And then there’s this:
5) Threat inflation. As I think about this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.
Otherwise: the “missile gap.” The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong — or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.
One would think that Fallows, after decades of covering Washington, would not be naive enough to be surprised by this. Truth is not only the first casualty of war, it is the first casualty of the marketing campaign used to sell the war. Like most ad campaigns, it is based on exploiting our fear and insecurity. And it works pretty much every time. Has our government ever gone to war without strong public support from the populace? Even in Vietnam, the public supported the war when we invaded. Governments always vastly overstate the threat from their intended target — remember, Hitler actually sold the invasion of Poland as a response to a non-existent imminent threat — and the public, forever gullible, always falls for it.