After three years, tens of thousands of lost and ruined lives, hundreds of billions of squandered dollars and incalculable damage to the respect for America around the world, it is strange to look back on the earliest days of the war in Iraq. On this unhappy anniversary, it is worth recalling the triumphal mood of that moment, and how the neoconservative ideologues celebrated the successful culmination of their campaign for war.
Holding the authors of the war accountable for their mendacity and stupidity is imperative—in hope that their advice will be ignored in the dangerous days to come.
Back then, popping open champagne corks while the carnage unfolded, the neoconservatives gleefully announced that anyone who had questioned this great expedition would be held accountable. Page after page of their punditry from the spring of 2003 was devoted to gloating, along with lengthy blacklists of the bad people who had expressed doubt about the wisdom of going to war. Honors would flow to the wise and courageous proponents of war, while the foolish and pusillanimous opponents would suffer eternal disgrace. And so on.
Nobody ranted more loudly in “victory” than the editors of The Weekly Standard, the small but very influential and belligerent magazine sponsored by the right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Standard gang could scarcely contain the urge “to run through the streets, laughing hysterically at all the people who were so blinded by hatred of President Bush—or general anti-Americanism, or their own sheer foolishness—that they continued to prophesy doom even after the war had begun and was already being won.” Their magazine applied that insulting description indiscriminately to everyone who had opposed the war, from patriotic elders like the retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft to the Congressional Black Caucus, the United Nations, the denizens of “Hollywood” (which magically expanded to include Manhattan and Connecticut), a few prominent journalists, many film stars and numerous members of the liberal clergy.
Meanwhile, confident predictions abounded in the conservative media. Democracy would flower, our enemies would wither, and those elusive weapons of mass destruction would be discovered either tomorrow or the next day. In The Weekly Standard, David Brooks, who soon moved on to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, offered an observation that now may be turned on him. No degree of humiliation, he sighed, would dissuade the war’s critics from their folly:
“Even if Saddam’s remains are found, even if weapons of mass destruction are displayed, even if Iraq starts to move along a winding, muddled path toward normalcy, no day will come when the enemies of this endeavor turn around and say, ‘We were wrong. Bush was right.’”
Despite the persistence of such rump grumblers, however, he remained cheerful because America is blessed with “a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill,” as well as “a federal government that can perform its primary task—protecting the American people—magnificently.” Young Americans, unlike the generation ruined by the debacle of Vietnam, could not help being impressed by these marvelous leaders. “The ruling class is reasonably candid about the war’s progress,” he explained.
Suffused with a tone of self-congratulation, such columns and editorials provided a choral background for the President’s “Mission Accomplished” photo opportunity. It seems most unlikely that the authors of those strutting essays can bear to read them again.
Today, Mr. Brooks and his fellow neocons quarrel over the quagmire their movement made, seeking to shift the blame to scapegoats in the Pentagon and the press, and to refurbish themselves as critics of the President they once idolized. What they once considered a political watershed that promised them limitless power and influence has become a political disaster they are scurrying to escape.
Very few of these sages are willing to acknowledge their own mistakes even now. How could they have known what nobody else figured out?
Nobody knew Saddam Hussein had destroyed his biological and chemical weapons, they say, although that fact was quickly becoming apparent as the U.N. weapons inspectors carried out their task, and had been revealed by Saddam’s son-in-law years earlier. Nobody knew that Iraq’s nuclear program had collapsed, they say, although the International Atomic Energy Agency had established that basic fact long before the U.S. invasion. Nobody knew that the insurgency would erupt into civil war, they say, even though regional experts had warned of that outcome.
As the intellectual cheerleaders for war, the neoconservatives knew perfectly well that there were many reasons to doubt the existence of Saddam’s fearsome arsenal and to doubt the rosy scenarios for a postwar Iraq. They angrily dismissed those doubts and beat the war drums louder.
Proven wrong on every count, they insist those arguments no longer matter, but they’re wrong about that too. The American people know they have been repeatedly misled, which is why they are turning their backs on this President and his war.