Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Iran Issue and the Exploitation of Ignorance

Washington on the Tigris: Reorganization Hits Iraq

Senator Corker and the Nuclear Agreement

Bad Move: The Backfiring of Israeli Strategy on Iran

Right and Wrong Lessons From the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

It really rankles some people that Barack Obama was correct from the outset, before any unfolding of the history confirming he was right, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake. And one can understand how to some ears Mr. Obama's subsequent references to the Iraq War may have a grating “I told you so” quality. Those most likely to be annoyed are the president's most fervent political opponents, who include most of those who were the most fervent promoters of the Iraq War. Possibly there also is some unspoken annoyance among those who fit into neither of these categories but who allowed themselves to be swept up in the pre-war militancy that the war promoters skillfully exploited. These latter people include, as Washington Post editorial page chief Fred Hiatt reminds us, President Obama's vice president and both of his secretaries of state, all of whom were among the majority of Democratic senators who voted—along with nearly unanimous Republican ranks—for the war resolution in 2002. Hiatt makes this observation in the course of acknowledging his own support for the war at that time and suggesting that the Iraq War ought not to be a “single-issue litmus test”.

Hiatt is right that no one issue should be such a test, but meaningful distinctions can and should be made between those who actively promoted the invasion and those whose offense consisted instead of insufficient attention to the consequences of what the promoters were promoting or insufficient political courage to try to stop the train that was hurtling down the tracks toward war. Moreover, correctness or incorrectness about the war today is not, as the headline of Hiatt's piece on the Post's op ed page suggests, merely a matter of hindsight. Careful attention to the realities of Iraqi political culture and political demography provided ample basis for anticipating before the invasion the sorts of difficulties that would come after it, and multiple sources of expertise did anticipate those difficulties—but the war promoters ignored them. Belief that the invasion was a good idea (and not just going along with it for the political ride) was rooted in destructive patterns of thought that Mr. Obama referred to the other day as a "mindset" that is also destructive when applied to other issues. Even if a past position on a single issue does not disqualify one as a source of policy advice, repeatedly exhibiting such patterns of thought ought to be a disqualifier.

Hiatt, giving himself a pass for his own support for the Iraq War, offers us a couple of “lessons” from the war that he says should be applied to the issue of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The most obvious lesson, he asserts, “is that intelligence on nuclear capabilities is notoriously unreliable.” Maybe many people see that as the most obvious lesson, but it is certainly not the most important one, given that—as I have discussed at length elsewhere—intelligence on Iraqi nuclear capabilities did not drive the decision to go to war at all. I won't repeat all the evidence that it did not, but suffice it to note that in the intelligence community's comprehensive, annual unclassified statement of worldwide threats—and specifically the statement in 2001, the latest one before the war-selling campaign began—the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear weapon did not appear at all. It didn't even make the cut of what the intelligence community considered to be worth mentioning in the statement.

Hiatt accuses President Obama of not taking Hiatt's “lesson” to heart when the president expresses confidence that any Iranian cheating under the nuclear agreement will be caught. But regardless of whether one regards U.S. intelligence on such subjects as reliable or unreliable, any problem or challenge in following Iranian nuclear developments certainly would be no worse with the agreement than without it. In fact, the ability to follow those developments will be substantially greater with the agreement. That gets to what is actually the most important lesson from the Iraq War about understanding a foreign state's nuclear capabilities: that there is no substitute for on-site monitoring and inspection. International inspectors were doing their job in Iraq in the weeks prior to the war. Their leaders expressed well-founded confidence that if they were permitted to keep doing their job they could reach accurate conclusions about what Iraq was or was not doing in the way of nuclear and other unconventional weapons. But they were not permitted to keep doing their job. The Bush administration kicked them out of Iraq to make way for the invasion. The war-makers had already decided what they wanted to do and were not interested in hearing any findings from international inspectors. The Iran agreement of today reflects a taking of the relevant lesson very much to heart by establishing the most comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring regimen ever applied to any nation's nuclear program.

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