The Washington Post on the Iraq War, Four Years Later

As the Iraq war entered its fifth year, with no end in sight, the editors of the Washington Post offered a mea culpa, of sorts, in yesterday’s Outlook section. Where they admit fault with their analysis of the Iraq war, it is largely in the ”questions not asked” category. These unasked questions pertained to the likelihood that Saddam Hussein would develop “a dangerous arsenal.” They were too accepting of the conventional wisdom on a host of issues. “Clearly, ”they explain, “we were insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports.”

Their greatest error, however, was in underestimating the challenge of reconstructing Iraq.

The question that Gen. David H. Petraeus posed (as recounted in Rick Atkinson’s history, “In the Company of Soldiers”) as he led the troops of his 101st Airborne Division from Kuwait across the Iraq border, “Tell me how this ends?” – that question must be the first to be asked, not the last. The answer won’t always be knowable. But the discussion must never lose sight of the inevitable horrors of war. It must not be left to the generals in the field. And it must assume, based on experience from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, that a U.S. commitment, once embarked upon, will not soon be over.

We raised such issues in our prewar editorials but with insufficient force. In February 2003, for example, we wrote that “the president [must] finally address, squarely and in public, the question of how Iraq will be secured and governed after a war that removes Saddam Hussein, and what the U.S. commitment to that effort will be… . Who will rule Iraq, and how? Who will provide security? How long will U.S. troops remain? … Many of these questions appear not to have been answered even inside the administration… .” They were still unanswered when the war, which we nevertheless supported, began. That should never happen again. (Emphasis mine)

No, it should not. And I take the Post editors at their word that they will strive to prevent that from happening again. In practical terms, however, does this mean that the Post would withhold support for military action against, say, Iran, if these questions are not answered to their satisfaction? I’m not sure.

But I can’t help but feel that their failure in early 2003 to ask such questions about war with Iraq derived not so much from sloppy analysis and insufficient curiosity (though those conditions certainly existed), but rather out of an inchoate concern that honest answers to such questions would have eroded support for a war that the Post editors believed – then and somehow still – to have been not merely justified but necessary. 

My suspicions are largely confirmed by the lessons that they have drawn, so far, from the Iraq experience. These include a conviction that preventive war is still a legitimate counter-proliferation strategy. (Jeffrey Record convincingly argues otherwise here). They have learned that democracy promotion is a difficult business, but they contend that the public demands that it remain a core object of U.S. foreign policy. (The latest polling data, as reported by the Post’s own David Broder last week, refutes this claim.) The Post editors have learned that multilateralism is preferable to unilateralism (who disagrees?) but that “international law and multinational organizations” cannot “always be counted upon.” In which case, what? They don’t say. Instead they concede, “Unfortunately, none of this provides bright guidelines to make the next decisions easier…”

But there is and should be a bright guideline for future military interventions, and it is nicely encapsulated in the final line of Ted Carpenter’s latest Policy Analysis: “Launching an elective war in pursuit of a nationbuilding chimera was an act of folly. It is a folly [U.S. policymakers] should vow never to repeat in any other country.”

It is clear that millions of Americans who supported the war in March 2003 on the erroneous belief that the war would be cheap, easy, and decisive, have since changed their mind. Knowing what they do now, most Americans believe that the war was a tragic mistake, a bad idea at the outset, made worse by the many errors committed by the Bush administration along the way.

The editors of the Post, apparently, have not learned this central lesson. And they, therefore, can be expected to support more elective wars in the future.