I am tired of hearing the excuse, "If I had known then what I know now" in relation to one's position on the Iraq war. Let's be honest. The translation seems to be: I thought I was voting for what Russian Interior Minister Plehve recommended to Tsar Nicholas II in pursuing hostilities with Japan: a "short, victorious war"-a cakewalk, a liberation-not for a long hard slog.
There is no excuse. The body of knowledge about Iraq's WMD program is essentially what it was back then when the vote took place. We knew what the risks of an occupation of Iraq would bring. The 2002 vote was a judgment call about whether or not Saddam Hussein could be trusted to remain in power without endangering the national security of the United States.
Let me say I am not looking for apologies or admissions of "wrongdoing." Nor am I suggesting that people cannot change their minds. In fact, I care less about how one voted on the Iraq war and much more why-what was the strategic thinking underpinning that decision? Was a vote cast out of deep held conviction and a careful assessment of the situation? And don't keep talking about intelligence. Most decisions are made on the basis of imperfect intelligence, fragments of information and lines of speculation. It is very rare that one is going to have 100 percent perfect intelligence in hand. And so leaders have to be prepared to exercise judgment. And I would hate to believe that many of those who supported the war did so because it was safer to be "with the majority"-to go with the flow-just as I have a problem with those who voted against the war because of an instinctive, reflexive dislike about the use of American power.
So, no more shouted taunts about repudiating a vote. Instead, these are the questions we should be asking:
-On what basis did you come to the conclusion that Iraq was a looming threat to U.S. national security? Were you prepared to accept the proffered intelligence because it confirmed your predispositions about Saddam Hussein and his regime? How closely did you examine what was presented to you?
-How did you "rank" the threat posed by Iraq against what was already known about the progress being made by North Korea and Iran?
-Did you feel that dealing with Iraq would be "easier" than tackling North Korea or Iran, and did you believe that there would be a de-proliferation "demonstration effect" as a result? And can you explain the basis for your reasoning?
What all of this navel gazing at the 1998 and 2002 votes on Iraq-and let's not forget the 2002 vote could not have taken place without the 1998 assessment about Iraq, passed by a broad bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Clinton-is not doing is helping us to understand how and why those who would be President after 2008 determine the difference between annoyances and irritants and true pending dangers to national security. Or how they plan to manage threats. Or their understanding about the limits of military power to bring about political solutions.
I want to know lessons learned. Based on what you know now about Iran, what is your recommended course of action? Don't tell me how you would have voted differently in 2002. Tell me today how you assess the security challenges we face. That seems to be a much more productive conversation.
Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.