As I noted last week, the GOP’s 2016 contenders didn’t do themselves much credit as they ducked, covered, cringed, and pratfell through a series of interview questions about the Iraq War. Still, Jeb Bush had a point when he noted that, at the time, “almost everybody” in political Washington was for the war. True enough: as policy disasters go, the Iraq War was as bipartisan as the subprime loan crisis.
On the war’s tenth anniversary a couple of years back, the New Republic’s John Judis recalled “what it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” His memory jibes with mine: it was pretty damned lonely. Well before “Shock and Awe,” hawkish arguments had achieved near full-spectrum dominance over the minds of Beltway policy elites, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq was shaping up as a horrific idea whose time had come.
But it rankled a bit when Judis wrote that “except for Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington’s thinktank honchos were also lined up behind the war.” Not to take anything away from Ms. Mathews, but the late, great Bill Niskanen had to count as a “think tank honcho” if anyone did, and he opposed the war vigorously, early, and often.
In a December 2001 public debate with former CIA director James Woolsey, Niskanen, then Cato’s chairman, offered the first prominent public statement by a DC think-tank leader against that looming debacle: “An Unnecessary War Is an Unjust War,” Bill argued. In the run-up to the invasion, other Cato scholars argued, among other things, that:
- “There is no credible evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The pro-war faction has never explained why the United States cannot deter a garden-variety thug like Saddam Hussein.“
- It ultimately didn’t matter whether Saddam Hussein had “WMDs”: He and Al Qaeda were anything but natural allies, and “the idea that Hussein views a WMD strike via terrorist intermediaries as a viable strategy is rank speculation, contradicted by his past behavior.”
- “Ousting Saddam would make Washington responsible for Iraq’s political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems.”
- The idea that regime change would usher in “a democratic transformation in the Middle East, producing new regimes that would be far friendlier to both Israel and the United States” was “a fantasy, not a realistic goal.”
- “If anything, nation building is likely to create more incentives, targets, and opportunities for terrorism, not fewer.”
- “The strategy of empire is likely to overstretch and bleed America’s economy … and the overextension could hasten the decline of the United States as a superpower, as it did the Soviet Union and Great Britain.”
At the time, opposition to the Iraq War was controversial even within the building—and outside of 1000 Massachusetts Ave., Cato’s Iraq War skeptics had very little company among the Beltway cognoscenti.