James Werrell

We knew Iraq war was a mistake

The question now being posed to the announced and potential 2016 presidential candidates is: Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq as president?

Maybe a better question would be: Knowing what we knew then, would you have invaded Iraq?

The question about the invasion of Iraq is an important one for the would-be leaders of the free world. It offers some insight into what they regard as the U.S. role in tilting the world order one way or another, and helps predict how they might act in a situation similar to the one that confronted President George W. Bush shortly after his election in 2000.

But the way the question is asked also is important. The way the first question is posed – whether, in hindsight, you would have invaded Iraq – presumes that we know much now about the validity of the information we had then and whether it justified the invasion.

We do know now – or should know – that the invasion was a mistake. Deposing Saddam on trumped up charges of hording weapons of mass destruction led to an eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq, the loss of many thousands of lives and ultimately the disintegration of the state of Iraq.

The chaos created by the war also helped spawn the rise of al Qaida in Iraq, which has evolved into the powerful terrorist group Islamic State that now occupies a large part of Iraq. And with the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign, the regional influence of Iran has grown enormously.

But it was not as if predicting this outcome was impossible in 2002 as the Bush administration began its campaign to convince the nation to invade Iraq. It’s not as if a case for war at the time was so strong that we were compelled to support it. It’s not as if we didn’t have a real choice 12 years ago.

Many Americans and Europeans opposed the invasion. Many were prescient enough to see it would be a disaster.

This newspaper opposed the invasion during the buildup to war and afterward. I mention this not to boast but to show that even an editorial board in Rock Hill, S.C., could find valid reasons to be skeptical about invading Iraq despite the hard sell from the Bush administration.

In August 2002, more than seven months before the invasion began, The Herald wrote: “Americans need to start asking themselves if they really want a war with Iraq. Otherwise, the nation runs the risk of being lulled into believing that an invasion is inevitable.”

And later in the same editorial: “Americans should not delude themselves that such an undertaking would be quick and easy, along the lines of Operation Desert Storm. All analysts are careful to point out that an invasion of Iraq today could be long and bloody with an uncertain aftermath.” We also noted that “the United States has no assurance that the regime that ultimately replaces Hussein would be much of an improvement.”

We wrote 10 other editorials expressing skepticism about the run-up to war before the invasion was launched in March 2003, and a dozen more after that. And if The Herald’s editorial board could find serious reasons to doubt the wisdom of a war with Iraq – with no special information or access to secret intelligence – why must we assume that the case for war was so convincing to our elected leaders that they had no choice but to support it?

One answer is that many who initially supported the war believed the assessment of war boosters that it would be a “cakewalk.” Supporting the invasion, they thought, would be a safe choice because the war would be over in a few weeks. Who wanted to be labeled a doubter as Iraqis were strewing flowers at the feet of the American liberators?

Another answer is that a number of politicians – especially Democrats with presidential ambitions – thought they needed to show that they were willing to use force when necessary. Democrats, in particular, often were seen as mushy when it came to flexing U.S. military muscle, and establishing their hawk credentials was necessary, they thought, to proving they were strong leaders.

But that, too, was a mistake. It notably backfired for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 in part because of her support for the war.

But we know now that the Bush administration first determined to invade Iraq and then set out to find the justifications for doing so, whatever it took. We know now that the war was long, brutal and indecisive. We know now that it was a tragic blunder.

The fact is, however, we also knew a lot of that back then, before the war started. And what we really need to know from those running for president is whether they would take us down that path again.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.