Paul Pillar

Democrats and the Iraq War

I thank Trevor Thrall and John Schuessler for adding additional insights to my recent comments on how those who sold the Iraq War got so many Americans to believe what should have been unbelievable. I will stretch the commentary out one more round, with the justification being that the Iraq War has been one of the costliest blunders (in human, material, and security terms) in U.S. history and warrants additional mulling over in the interest of trying to lessen the chance that anything comparable will recur.

Of course public ignorance and ideology had much to do with why even many Democrats swallowed the war-sellers' messages. But that doesn't make the turnabout in public beliefs as a direct result of the sales campaign any less impressive. The specific issue I mentioned—whether the Iraqi regime was in league with al-Qaeda—was not an issue at all for the overwhelming majority of Americans before the sales campaign began. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, polls indicated that very few Americans thought Iraq was involved.

The unsavory story of how Democrats, not just Republicans, in Congress handled the Iraq War issue is well told by Tom Ricks in a chapter of his book Fiasco. Readers can also get an account in the relevant chapter of my own recent book. The Bush administration's “feint” (as Schuessler aptly calls it ) toward the United Nations was probably less about keeping Democrats on board than about keeping the British government (and to some extent Secretary of State Colin Powell) on board. Before the war resolution was passed (with the support of most Senate Democrats), the Senate voted on a substitute resolution sponsored by Carl Levin that said Congress would support the use of military force but only if an additional U.N. resolution calling for Iraqi cooperation with international inspectors was not adequately observed or enforced. Levin's resolution was defeated in a vote that was a near mirror image of the vote on the resolution endorsing the war, leading Lincoln Chafee—the only Republican senator to vote against the war resolution—to observe later that most senators “were immune to persuasion” and “their minds were made up.”

Besides fearing being on the wrong side, as in 1991, of a war that turns out to be successful and popular, Democrats in Congress were mostly anxious to get the war issue out of the way and leave as much time as possible between the vote and the 2002 elections. This accounted for the quick procedure in which there were not even any committee hearings on the war resolution. Their schedule also drove the production of what became the infamous intelligence estimate on unconventional weapons programs, which was a three-week rush job. (Very few members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate anyway.)  Other, more carefully produced, intelligence assessments that presciently described how the task in Iraq after Saddam's fall would be long and difficult rather than quick and easy received no more attention in Congress than they received from the Bush administration policymakers.

My earlier observation about the lasting damage to public understanding resulting from the mistaken beliefs instilled by the Bush administration's war-selling campaign has to do with more than the blunder of the war itself. It has to do with, among other things, understanding what helps to drive anti-U.S. Islamist terrorism. It is not driven by regimes such as Saddam Hussein's; it is driven by anger-inducing actions such as the Iraq War itself and U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any “Iraq syndrome” that sours the American public for the time being on more foreign wars of choice does not correct for that sort of damage to understanding. The syndrome may reduce the chance, for a while, of more stupid wars. But it is a very blunt and imprecise safeguard, since it implies lack of public support also for wars that may not be stupid.