The Iraq War is the greatest strategic blunder in American history. It cost our nation $1 trillion, the lives of thousands of our finest warriors, and our international credibility. It made defeating al-Qaeda harder, stopping Iran more difficult, and global security more precarious. It was not, as some now say, simply the fault of bad intelligence. Our senior officials willfully and systematically misled the American people and our closest allies on the most crucial question any government faces: Must we go to war?
Not one of the dozens of claims our officials made about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, missiles, unmanned drones, or most importantly, Iraq's nuclear weapons and ties to al-Qaeda, was true.
We now know that during the buildup to the 2003 war, Saddam Hussein did not have any of these weapons, did not have production programs for manufacturing these weapons, and did not have plans to restart programs for these weapons. The most that Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, was able to tell Congress in October 2004 was that Saddam might have had the "intention" to restart these programs at some point. The evidence for even this claim was largely circumstantial and inferential.
The Bush administration, having extended the search for these weapons past the November 2004 elections, officially ended it in January 2005. The search found no evidence that the alleged weapons were destroyed shortly before the war or moved to Syria, as some still claim. They never existed. As Duelfer reported, the weapons and facilities had been destroyed by the United Nations inspectors and U.S. bombing strikes in the 1990s, and he found no evidence of "concerted efforts to restart the program."
Containment versus War
Moreover, all the intelligence coming from UN inspectors on the ground in the months before the war indicated no evidence of any weapons or programs. Saddam was effectively contained. As I noted with my colleagues Jessica Mathews and George Perkovich in our January 2003 study, Iraq: What Next?,
Saddam is in an iron box. With tens of thousands of troops around Iraq, an international coalition united in support of the inspection process, and now hundreds of inspectors in the country able to go anywhere at any time, Saddam is unable to engage in any large-scale development of production of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
We argued then that the inspection could safely continue for another year or more, that only "the demands of a war force the pace." We warned that as uncomfortable and expensive as continued containment was, a war would be much more costly. Our only mistake was to underestimate those costs.
The large U.S. troop deployment...is expensive, with some estimates at $1 billion per week to keep 150,000 troops in the Gulf. However, the human and financial costs are vastly higher for a war. Many servicemen and women might go home more quickly after a short war this spring, but others will lose their lives. And perhaps 50,000 or more would have to remain in Iraq after a war for anywhere from 18 months to more than a decade. The Congressional Research Service reports that direct war costs would range from $40 billion to $200 billion, with tens of billions of dollars per year needed for the occupying force.
As we bring the war to an honorable close, there is still a coordinated effort underway to reframe the rationale for starting the war, to claim that we went to war to promote democracy, or to save the Iraqi people, or, most recently, as part of the struggle to bring democracy to the Arab world. Weapons, we are told, were just one of the reasons.
As Senator Carl Levin of Michigan pointed out on the Senate floor on January 25, 2005, in opposition to the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, this is an attempt to rewrite history.
The simple fact is that before the war, the administration repeatedly and dramatically made the case for war on the issue of Iraq possessing and continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, and the likelihood that it would provide those weapons to terrorists like al-Qaeda. For Dr. Rice to suggest that there were many other, equally compelling, reasons to go to war simply do not square with the reality of how the administration persuaded the American people and the Congress of the need of war. Her suggestion is an effort to revise the history of the administration's presentation to the American people.
Indeed, President Bush's final speech to the American people as the war began was entirely about the urgent need to disarm Saddam. He mentioned human rights and democracy only in passing near the conclusion of his remarks.
The key document in the administration's campaign, the report that convinced many Americans, was the CIA White Paper on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs. The White Paper was hurriedly produced and distributed to the public in October 2002 as an unclassified version of the now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was given to Congress in the same month, just a few days before the vote to authorize the use of force. These two documents convinced the majority of congressional members, experts, and journalists that Saddam had a powerful and growing arsenal.
I pored over these two deeply flawed documents for the January 2004 Carnegie study, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications. There is not one claim in the reports that proved true, except the finding that Saddam was highly unlikely to transfer any weapons to terrorist groups - a finding that the administration ignored and was not included in the public White Paper.
One brief example serves to demonstrate the way the information, faulty to begin with, was shaped to present the worst possible case to the American people. The first paragraph of the White Paper concludes that Iraq "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." This claim was then repeated endlessly to the public with much talk of "mushroom clouds." But the classified NIE only said that Iraq might acquire a bomb some time between 2007 and 2009. A danger, but not a threat that required war in March 2003. The estimate itself was wildly wrong (there was no program, there was no bomb), but by dropping the dates, officials who honestly believed the estimate could be right frightened the public into believing Saddam might already have a bomb. The danger was urgent. We had to act. We had no choice but to terminate the UN inspections and invade.
Officials knew or should have known that this was not true at the time. But dissenters to the worst-case scenarios were ignored. Caveats and qualifications were discarded. Only those who supported the policy were allowed into the decision-making circles, or as Patrick Lang said, only those "who drank the Kool-Aid" got to sit at the table.
The Next War
We ignore the past at our peril, for similar methods and warnings are cropping up in the debate over Iran. Those who favor military action are again making the threat appear closer than it is by minimizing the substantial technological and engineering obstacles that Iran must overcome to be able to enrich uranium and manufacture a weapon. Those who favor diplomatic solutions, even our closest allies, are given short shrift. Diplomacy--only hesitantly tried over the past decade--is said to have failed.
We will undoubtedly hear stories of the brutality of the Iranian regime (and it is brutal), coupling the danger of Iran someday getting nuclear weapons with calls for democracy in the Middle East. The very same people who lied us into war with Iraq have now mounted an orchestrated campaign to build support for an attack on Iran that will be as determined as their campaign to build support for the invasion of Iraq.
It is not wise at this juncture to simply "turn the page." Those who hope not to repeat the mistakes of the past would do well to go back and read the playbook for war with Iraq, lest we compound our blunder with an even greater catastrophe.
(This article is partially adapted from my preface to the 2005 book, Neoconned, Again)
Follow Joe Cirincione on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Cirincione