Of course it was a mistake. In truth, “mistake” is the gentlest among many applicable words, but that simple question about invading Iraq trips up every Republican presidential candidate. Even with different framing, “knowing what we know now” versus the less hypothetical “was it a mistake,” they resort to nonsensical babbling. For obvious reasons.
It’s not as if I don’t understand prospective uncertainty. Thinking a patient had appendicitis, for example, I’ve taken out a couple of normal ones; and no matter what the preoperative evidence had been, including an unequivocal radiologic diagnosis, it always made me feel bad. But having considered all possibilities, having done appropriate tests and explained that there’s no set of data based on which it’s possible to be 100% certain, I’ve not felt that my decision was a mistake. (In the days before more accurate imaging, we were taught that if we didn’t have a 15% normal appendix rate, we weren’t operating enough, risking perforation.)
In fact, no matter the operation in question, a decision to operate is always one of glorified odds-playing. Bad outcomes don’t always imply poor judgment or sloppy technique. But the act of taking another’s life in my hands was never something I took lightly; I owed my patients nothing less than gathering all the relevant data, interpreting it honestly and with only the patients’ best interest in mind. I was obliged to maintain my skills, and to be sure I knew the latest developments in research and technology. Still the possibility of complications was always present, and weighed heavily on every decision I made.
So, yes, I understand gray zones, and the impossibility of perfection. Which means I understand that in every way, on every level, in real time and in hindsight, the Iraq invasion was a mistake of monumental proportions, and, unlike the complications with which I dealt in my career, there may be no healing from it.
It’s telling that when Marco Rubio said, in response to what passes for “tough” questioning on Fox “news,” that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, he wasn’t asked to enumerate the ways. Given the chaos in the region that has resulted, it’d have been clarifying. But that’s not even the most central point. The real point is that even if he ceded presidential decisions to Dick Cheney, George Bush had to have known the reasons he gave to justify the invasion were questionable. Mobile weapons labs. Yellowcake. Aluminum tubes. Reconstituted nuclear weapons program. Actual WMD.
To every one of his claims there were, at the time, counterclaims from credible sources. And let’s remember inspectors were there, finding nothing. It’s hard to conjure a similar situation; but had I operated on someone when all the tests were equivocal and my diagnosis had been questioned to my face by experienced doctors, and if I didn’t find anything when I went in and if the patient got sick as hell as a result, I’d have spent the rest of my life in a courtroom. Not to mention in self-recrimination, a phenomenon lacking in every one of the war’s original cheerleaders.
Think about it: Every prediction that preceded the invasion turned out to be wrong. Pay for itself. Greeted as liberators. Shiites and Sunni will kumbaya. The war will last a few weeks. Eric Shinseki was fired after rightly putting the number of troops required way higher than planners were claiming. Even if those claims were made in good faith, what does it say about Cheney and Bush that they chose such clueless advisors; not to mention the fact that they shut down those who disagreed? Clearly, to call the invasion a mistake is to be too mild. “What we know now” was, in fact, known then. It just didn’t comport with their unstoppable plan. I assume they figured the results would be so mission-accomplished flight-suit glorious, we’d excuse the falsehoods.
For the next year and a half, we’ll be watching the parade of presidential pretenders threading the needle. Except for Lindsey Graham, who loves war more than (your) life itself. He’s just announced that if anyone even thinks of joining ISIS he’ll kill 'em with a drone. As to how he plans to read thoughts, who'll fly the drone, and where he’ll hide the Constitution, we await enlightenment.[Image source]