WASHINGTON -- The conference room on Air Force One looks like any other conference room, except that the chairs at the big oak table slide on tracks and have seat belts.
On Thanksgiving 2001, I was sitting in one of those chairs across from President George W. Bush. Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan, was going well, and the president was on his way to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to share a Thanksgiving meal with the members of the 101st Airborne.
It was his first major interview after 9/11. He had talked about "evil" and "evildoers," so in my role then as a Newsweek reporter, I asked him if Saddam Hussein, longtime ruler of Iraq, was "evil." He glanced at his aides around the table and said nothing.
But after a minute, after we'd moved on to another topic, he decided to blurt out an answer. "Saddam Hussein is evil," he said, with the air of a student talking out of turn. "He's evil."
The rest, sadly, is the history we now mark on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War.
The war remains one of America's most controversial, not to say catastrophic, military endeavors. As we now know, though the U.S. would not invade Iraq until 2003, President Bush (or rather Vice President Dick Cheney, the real "decider") had already determined that the second step in the "war on terror" would be to obliterate Saddam's regime.
A decade later we know the result. Joshua Hersh, The Huffington Post's foreign affairs correspondent, summarizes it brilliantly:
When President George W. Bush announced the invasion into Iraq in March 2003, the goal was to remove a dangerous dictator and his supposed stocks of weapons of mass destruction. It was also to create a functioning democracy and thereby inspire what Bush called a "global democracy revolution."
The effort was supposed to be cheap -- to require few troops and even less time. Instead, it cost the United States $800 billion at least, thousands of lives and nearly nine grueling years ... [T]oday in Fallujah, the site of two of the war's largest and most devastating military campaigns, the very best that can be said is that two years late to the party -- not 10 years early -- the Arab Spring has arrived. But the government the people are rising up against is the very one the U.S. installed.
Ten years ago Saturday, the first U.S. troops started to stealthily enter Iraq in advance of the massive "shock and awe" bombing that began on March 20, 2003.
Starting Saturday and running through Wednesday, The Huffington Post offers a series of stories about the costs and consequences, the lessons learned and perhaps ignored, of a war fought under a new doctrine of "pre-emptive" or "preventative" conflict. In his latest effort to defend the war, Cheney declared to filmmaker R.J. Cutler that the Iraq War was justified because the U.S. eliminated a regime that might have at some future time posed a threat.
How did we allow that warped vision to drive us into war?
When I say "we," I mean the decision-making machinery of Washington, including elected lawmakers, appointed officials and the national media. Too few questions were asked, too many assumptions were allowed to go unchallenged, too many voices of doubt were muffled or rejected in a toxic atmosphere of patriotism, ignorance and political fear.
I can speak from my own experience of what was not so much a "rush" but a steady, inexorable march.
It began with fear and, for some journalists including me, misguided patriotism. Washington and New York, the centers of the American media, had been attacked on 9/11. We all knew, or knew of, people who had been killed. We had only one president, and as incurious and unprepared as he was, there was a natural desire to see him somehow grow in office to meet the moment.
Of course for journalists, the most patriotic thing we can do is our jobs -- which meant that we all should have doubled down on skepticism and tough questions. Some did. I wish I could say that I was one of them.
There were some reasons to expect success, or at least not to accept the dire warnings against invading Iraq. Bush's critics had predicted disaster in Afghanistan, but in the first year or two after Operation Enduring Freedom, it seemed as though the "war lords" of the Bush administration were tough customers who knew what they were doing.
On the other hand, American ignorance of the Arab and Muslim worlds 10 years ago was alarmingly vast. More than ignorance, there was fear, prejudice and propaganda.
The Bush White House, as reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn so ably documented in their book Hubris, relentlessly and cynically sold the phony details of Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction." Even Gen. Colin Powell, then secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taken in.
Yes, it is true that when a government decides to lie and does it systematically, it isn't easy to pull back the curtain. And yet too many people in and out of government believed what they wanted to believe or felt it convenient to believe.
Many of the naysayers moved within the orbit of the CIA, which was denounced by the Bush-Cheney neoconservatives as an agency full of incompetent weaklings. Members of the press with vast experience and deep CIA contacts became some of the loudest critics of the idea of attacking Iraq, yet many were ignored precisely because of their sources.
Too many members of Congress, including Democrats, stifled their doubts out of political fear -- fear that Bush might be right about the evidence, but more important, fear that the war would go well and they would be on the "wrong" side of it politically, headed into the 2004 presidential election year.
As for me, I could say that I was covering politics, not war, and that it wasn't my job to try to pierce the veil of lies and "precog" justifications of the Bush-Cheney-neocon axis.
But the war was politics. It was a new battle for the president to be seen fighting as he headed toward a reelection run. I should have known more, studied more, asked more questions and been more skeptical.
I hope I am wiser now. I hope we all are.