Making Mistakes

David Kay (the director of the U.S.-sponsored search for weapons of mass destruction [W.M.D.] in Iraq) has now stated clearly what has been apparent for some time: there were not in fact W.M.D. in the hands of the Iraqi government before the U.S. went to war in 2003. In the U.S. unfortunately, stating this simple fact is not simple at all: it is not based on a complete search yet, or it shows that Bush lied, or it isn’t the real issue, or it is tantamount to appeasing a murderous dictator, etc.
Aside from the hyperbole, though, it is in fact actually, genuinely true that the absence of W.M.D. means that the rationale for the war was wrong. It was a mistake, and mistakes will happen even when everyone is very smart and starts out with good intentions. It is only a tragedy if it is not learned from, yet the cultural dynamics of politics in the U.S. will make it almost impossible to gain something from this misjudgment.
Invading Iraq was predicated on preventing terrorism, either directly (through stopping the proliferation of W.M.D.) or indirectly (by developing a strong, friendly presence in the region). The invasion has not accomplished either of those aims: there are no W.M.D. to find, and the establishment of a friendly presence in Iraq has been an uneasy, rocky project. As one senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority said, “I’d be happy if we just got out of here without them hating us.” For now, as president Bush has noted, Iraq has become a “dangerous place” that attracts “terrorists and members of al Qaeda.”
In _The Fog of War_ Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson, says that the stakes of modern nuclear conflict are impossibly high: if a mistake is made, “nations are destroyed.” He was not speaking of terrorism, but he may well have been.
The costs for not preventling terrorism, for not accomplishing the Iraq war’s aims, could be very high, yet the public discussion of the war is driven by partisan ideology completely. Those who question the war’s justification are said to be not “supporting the troops”; while those who support the war are said to be “liars” and “traitors.”
When the stakes are so high, it should be possible to learn from experience, change one’s mind, or alter the approach, then figure out the best way to protect people in the U.S. If not, we are all in a lot of trouble.