20-20 Hindsight

Clive Crook has a very provocative piece in the current National Journal arguing that, in hindsight, the Iraq War was the wrong decision even though we’re now stuck seeing it through:

If America and its allies are going to stay the course in Iraq, their leaders can hardly admit that the intervention was a mistake in the first place. But other advocates of the war cannot claim the same license. They owe the people they debated before the war an honest answer to the question, “So, now do you admit that you were wrong?”

Advocates of the war, such as myself, could say yes to that question and still believe (as even the people who were against the war from the beginning ought to believe) that starting from here, the only honorable course is to persevere, that to quit now and leave Iraq to its fate would be wrong. We armchair champions of the war could take that position, even if political necessity forbids Bush and Blair to do the same. My answer to the question is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we advocates of the war were indeed wrong. But it is important to be clear about exactly how we were wrong.

By itself, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction made the venture, with hindsight, a mistake. Iraq’s supposed WMD were not the only reason for attacking Saddam, but they were a main reason. *** Many of Bush’s critics in America and Europe want to believe that he and his allies just lied about this — saying the war was about disarming Iraq, while knowing that there were no WMD. By every plausible account, this is not true. *** Even if the failure to find WMD were the only thing to have gone wrong, it would have been enough, with hindsight, to shift the balance of pros and cons against the war — but much else has gone wrong as well. Postwar planning was weak. Too few resources were committed to the task. And resistance to the occupation was stronger than expected. As a result, the coalition forces have been unable to provide security, the necessary condition for everything else the coalition wants to see happen, from functioning democratic institutions to investment and economic recovery.


The greatest blow to the hopes of most advocates of the war, however, has not been the postwar errors of planning and tactics, and not even the failure to find WMD, but the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the shifty response of the administration to those revelations. It is difficult to exaggerate the lasting damage those images have caused. In the eyes of the world, they make a mockery of America’s claims to have removed Saddam in the name of liberty and democracy.


The war was started for reasons that looked sound at the time. History’s verdict might still be that it was a good war to have fought. In any event, the allies must continue to work in the hope of that eventual success. But can anybody seriously argue that, knowing what they now know about the unfolding of events in Iraq, the allies would willingly do the same thing again? Sadly, when you recall that the West still has enemies that may need to be confronted in future, the answer is no.

In several senses, Crook is right. The lead-up to the war was contentious and, knowing what we know now, quite of few of the advocates of the war would have come down the other way. I suspect I would have, as I’ve always been skeptical of using the military for nation building. Indeed, I was very much a Realist on the war, rejecting the Administration’s arguments for it until roughly the time that North Korea announced that it had nuclear weapons. Ulimately, the prospect of a nuclear-armed and thus uncontainable Saddam pushed me into the pro-war camp.

On the other hand, I wonder how many wars that we now view as just would have met with popular approval in their midst. The U.S. Civil War, for example, would almost certainly not have been fought if Lincoln–let alone the public–had known ahead of time that over half a million would be killed and many times that maimed for life. The initial northern war aim of preserving the Union would certainly not have been deemed worth that price. The abolition of slavery, which became the war aim well into the conflict, has made it seem worthwhile in the hindsight of history, but that goal had much less popular support in the North than did Union.

Would we have fought World War I if we had known the cost ahead of time? Or that we’d have to fight it again thirty years later? How about Korea? Certainly, we’d have avoided Vietnam; a good thing in hindsight.

Indeed, World War II is the lone high cost war since the War for Independence that would likely have commanded popular support had the costs been known up front. And, indeed, I’m not sure WWII would survive this test had we not been attacked at Pearl Harbor. We were quite content to let Hitler have his way in Europe–participating only with materiel support–for quite a few years until Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the excuse he needed to send us to war.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I fail to see why the prison abuse scandal invalidates the war effort. Crook seems balanced in the article and fair for the most part but then he spends five paragraphs on Abu Ghraib. His assertion that we should have seen this coming is absurd.

    I also fail to see how poor planning and mismanagement (which I think are exagerated) in some areas invalidates the argument for war. Shouldn’t the argument for action be seperate from judgements on how the action was carried out? This “the Bush administrtion was incapable of doing it right” argument is a cop-out to me as it allows people who suported the war to reamin hawkish but turn on Bush when things get tough.

    Iraq had to be dealt with in some way because of the unstable situation in Saudia Arabia with our troops and becuase the no fly zones and embargo was not a long term solution. We took the admitedly risky and difficult choice of forcing the issue on our terms. In the long run I think this will be to the betterment of our security and Iraq.

    Having studied diplomatic history, however, I think few of us have the neccesary distance emotionally or the practical ability to get enough facts to make a wise judgement on how the war is going in Iraq. This panic we are going through is natural but most not be allowed to undermine all the work we have done so far.

  2. Hal says:

    You know, this is still dishonest. It wasn’t just that we were wrong about WMDs, we were DUPED into believing they existed. The sole source of this information came from Iran – our sworn enemy. Worse, the occupation just didn’t have weak planning, the SOLE plan they had for the occupation rested entirely on the same fraud who played us for fools regarding the WMDs in the first place: Chalabi.

    You have an interesting point James regarding whether or not we should have gone to war anyway, but my point is that we never had a debate about such issues. None at all. And it’s pretty clear that no debate was desired. Rather, the easy WMD lies that Chalabi and his band of merry men were feeding us was used to brow beat anyone who was critical of this war.

    And what have we gotten in return for this sacrifice – regardless of how cheap you all think it is? A reconstituted Al Qaeda with at least 18,000 trained terrorists. Their ranks are swelling due to the fiasco in Iraq. We’re barely able to keep the country together as it is, and after well over a year of occupation we haven’t the slightest clue as to who we’re going to turn the country over to. Best case seems to see Iraq turning out to be yet another Theocracy. Worst case has it descending into chaos and civil war. Sentiment all over the world is universally against us – especially in the Arab/Muslim world.

    So again I ask, what is the benefit. The cost has been staggeringly high and I would expect an equally high benefit. So far, the best I have seen is platitudes and promissory notes that can only be cashed in decades into the future.

    Perhaps people don’t understand the term Pyrrhic victory.

  3. James Joyner says:


    It’s simply not true that the only info on WMD was from Iran. Indeed, the existence of Iraqi WMD was considered a given. Everyone from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to Kofi Annan to Hans Blix to Jacques Chirac thought they existed.

  4. p says:

    The big difference in the day of WW11 and the people of this time is that we have forgotten the value of peace. WWII had a war fresh in their memories, many had lost a family member the generation before them, they knew the cost and still fought. But there has been many years and war has skipped 2 to 3 generations. People have become complacent and have lost sight of the need.
    Iran is not going to give up their terror they are going to have to be forced.

  5. LJD says:

    When was it announced that Iraq was certified as being WMD-Free? Do we actuallty think that we have uncovered everything there was to know about Saddam’s regime in only one year? Who will make the guarantee that no WMDs will EVER be found?
    Don’t stop to think for a minute that if Saddam could have, he would have, and probably did develop WMDs in the last 10 years.

    Evidence of WMDs and weapons programs (Sarin, Mustard Gas, illegal missle tech.)have already been found, but they are always viewed as being too antiquated or too few to satisfy the argument. What is enough- tens of thousands of dead people? I hope for all of our sake that there are none in existence, in any rogue nation…

    The case for war has been horribly distorted by the vocal left. In fact, wasn’t the war justified even without the “smoking gun”? (Smoking gun alluding to the fact that one has been fired, presumably at US!)

    What about the bounty paid to palestinian homicide bombers? What about the oppression and torture of the Iraqi people? What about the UN corruption and embezzlement from the oil-for -food program? Points all missed by the critics.

    In the final analysis every one is missing the point: This war has been a huge, unprecedented success. When in history have such accomplishments even been met? What other country gives billions of dollars, and the blood of our soliders, for the sake of another country’s sovereignity? The Germans, French, and Russians, whose votes in the UN were tainted by their deals with Saddam (in violation of UN resolutions)?

  6. Hal says:

    James, that’s just a myth. The Germans tried to warn us and it’s pretty clear that Chalabi’s band of merry men fanned out to all the other countries that were “convinced”.

    And you are mischaracterizing Blix’s position. He did not consider it a given. He just said there were things unaccounted for that needed to be verified.

    And let’s not forget the 600 inspections in the most aggressive inspection regime that we had right before the war. Well do I remember the “absense of evidence does not mean evidence of absense” loony toons logic being bantied about.

    More, the high profile Powell speech before the UN has now been admitted by Powell, himself, to be based on Tiffin phantasms.

    While we certainly knew he had WMDs in the past, the pro-war side forced the issue based on the trumped up evidence from Iranians to get the war on NOW. No time for debate. And let’s not forget the rather damning fact that protocol was not followed and the NIE which should have been produced before the decision to go to war was even decided, was only produced – hastily – after the fact. And looking through that NIE now it’s pretty clear that Iran’s finger prints are all over it. Hardly something to be proud of – putting the best face on it.

    Again, I certainly admit you have some interesting points regarding whether we should still have gone to war, but these were never debated. And now we’re paying the price.

    Also, you still haven’t answered my question regarding any tangible benefits of this war of choice. Not saying you have to, believe me, but certainly your arguments would have greater weight if there was anything to point to at all that wasn’t swamped out by the negatives that fighting this war in the way we fought it has produced.

    Then there’s the little matter of the sole plan for occupation relying on this same fraud. A plan, I might add, that was never revealed before the war – even to the Senate, in secret, despite repeated requests.

    Really, this war was a mistake, wrapped in a lie, prosecuted by incompetents.

  7. Boyd says:


    James already responded with my first point: a lot more people than Chalabi claimed Iraq had WMD pre-War.

    Regarding debate, I thought we discussed attacking Iraq for six or nine months. I realize you disagree with the decision at the end of the debate, but I can’t see how you can say it wasn’t debated.

    Regarding the supposed 18,000 Al Qaeda trained terrorists: that was some pretty simplistic math they used to come up with that figure. I don’t buy it, but that’s purely opinion. Now tell me, how do you know that Al Qaeda’s ranks are swelling? You have a chat with OBL or something? The foreign insurgents we’re encountering in Iraq can’t fairly be considered Al Qaeda terrorists, but even if they could, that’s fine by me. I’d rather have them in Iraq where it’s physically and politically easier to kill them. Because, quite frankly, I want them dead. Because, quite frankly, they want me dead. Easy choice for me.

    It’s way to early to decide if our efforts in Iraq yielded a Pyrrhic victory. I’d say it would still be too early to tell five years from now. I’m certainly not going to try to judge the quality of our success today; that would be meaningless.

  8. Hal says:

    LJD: How’s it feel to be a tool of Iran?

  9. Hal says:

    Boyd, I guess you don’t read the WaPo. And that’s not really the sole source. I doubt there is a serious analyst in the world who doesn’t think that Al Qaeda’s ranks aren’t swelling due to the Iraq war, the torture photos, and a host of other issues. If you can find some reports from anyone serious regarding Al Qaeda’s ranks shrinking, then please post them.

    As to It’s way to early to decide if our efforts in Iraq yielded a Pyrrhic victory I think you’re in the vast minority. 3 Centcom generals, numerous former hawks and pretty much everyone else in the world considers it to be a monumental failure. Let’s not forget our own Army’s war college, which blasts the whole adventure as “a detour”. Are you telling me they’re all wrong and misguided and fooled by the Liberal press? Of course, there’s Daniel Benjamin, a member of the National Security Council staff in the late 1990s who said

    “The criticism does not seem out of line with many of the conversations I have had with officers in every branch of the military.”

    So I guess they’re all wrong too.

    We have no clue who we are turning the country over to, we have Fallujah turning into a mini Islamic state, we have Shi’ites in control who are undoubtedly going to install a theocracy. We are universally reviled around the world.

    Pray tell, what constitutes victory – regardless of how many years into the future it may still be? Saying that we’ll just have to wait and see if anything good comes out of it is hardly a defense against the accusations that there is a monumentally huge downside to the whole thing in the present.

    And your future promissory notes don’t look like their worth the paper they’re printed on, I might add. “Trust me” really has pittifully little cache any more.

  10. Hal,

    This war was not a “lie.” Any serious, sober person should at least go read Kenneth Pollack’s tome advocating the case for war with Iraq. There were mounds of evidence, through various sources, accumulated by various intelligence agencies, not to mention serious trends that pointed to Saddam’s continuing threat to regional stability.

    Pollack is highly critical of the administration (he would agree with your use of the word “incompetents”), and has many doubts about the case for war in retrospect, but he is a PERFECT, non-partisan example of why the case for war was a legitimate one, taken seriously by serious people.

    And here is what really annoys the everloving out of me about your post and sentiments that are similar:

    the pro-war side forced the issue based on the trumped up evidence from Iranians to get the war on NOW. No time for debate.

    This ignores:

    A. Debate since the end of the first war, when the terms of the cease-fire agreement were never fulfilled by Saddam Hussein.

    B. That we were, in fact, in a shooting war with Iraq for a decade.

    C. That political and logistical realities demanded that the US get its “war on” in the timeframe pushed by the administration.

    Hal, the burden of proof to show WMD’s wasn’t on US; it was on Saddam Hussein to prove that he did not have them. Considering that Iraq was an OVERT enemy of the US, any decision to abandon regime change and maintain the status quo would have been deeply irresponsible. This war was just. Criticisms of execution aside, the case for war was good enough.

    And your quibbles about several months of timing compared to a pre-war dance that lasted more than a decade are self-serving semantics that prop up the worldview that you bring to the table.

  11. And as for the benefit? Well if the conventional media narrative could get its head out of its ass and stop the gloom and doom, then an honest analysis would go something like this:

    “We’ll see.”

  12. MG says:

    The Civil War was “worth it” simply because it had to be fought sooner or later.

    Iraq? Was status quo ante bellum better than what we have today? Embargo, unknown future risk, no-fly zones.

    At least we now have a chance to place a democratic regime in the heart of the Middle East. If it works, there is no end to the good that may come it.

  13. Hal says:

    So “We’ll see” is the party line now? It was only yesterday when. . . Nope, won’t reiterate the obvious.

    As to the “the burden of proof to show WMD’s wasn’t on US” statement, that is of course, correct. And with 600+ inspections right before the Iraq war, under the most rigorous inspection regime we’ve ever had, we found zip. And as we know now, Saddam really did have absolutely zip.

    The lie of this war was that Saddam really did have WMDs. As we now know, this was based on pure speculation (i.e. what people believed in the past) and – most crucially – on the bogus information fed to us by the Iranians. Clearly, the UN inspections were verifying that Saddam was compliant. Yes, he had missiles – short range missiles – but something trivially taken care of by destroying them. Which we did, of course.

    So Bill’s argument boils down to:

    1) We didn’t believe Saddam when he told us he had no WMD
    2) The reason we didn’t believe him was because Iran was feeding us bogus information
    3) Therefore we were justified.

    You can’t bring up the UN resolutions without running into the fact that we now know it to be the case that he was in compliance. And to say that because “we couldn’t be sure we had to assume he was lying” is simply beyond the pale. Even worse is the fact that we were being played for fools by the Iranians. Their information was leading us to believe that Saddam was lying about WMDs.

    Now one can argue that the war wasn’t really about WMDs, but clearly a lot of people thought it was. And without their support for the war, it wouldn’t have happened. The case for WMDs was based on pure speculation and the lies fed to us by Iran.

    Based on a lie, wrapped in confusion, and prosecuted by incompetents.

    Let’s not forget the whole “occupation planning” who’s lynchpin was the very same fraud who fed the Iranian WMD lies to us.

  14. Ok, I’m not going to address all of your points, but a couple of things:

    1. Get off the Iranian obsession. Even if Iranian intelligence was feeding information, the UN documented intelligence on stockpiles of undestroyed weapons was a whole ‘nother load of intelligence.

    2. Inspections don’t, CAN’T ever work, unless the target country COMPLIES. Even up to the war, saddam was not in compliance. the time for games was OVER.

    3 people like you constantly harp on the need to find massive stockpiles of unconventional weapons. Tell me, what is the philisophical difference if Saddam Hussein maintains an infrastructure that can reconstitute large stocks of weapons the minute the heat is off?

    It’s fucking semantics. the man was a threat, and would remain a threat, until his government was removed. Don’t even get me started on the human rights angle.

  15. Boyd says:

    One additional point, Hal. The onus was not on the UN to find WMD in Iraq. Iraq was required to provide documentation on the elimination of their documented WMD. If Iraq moved their WMD to other countries, did this meet the letter or the spirit of the requirements imposed on them by the ’91 ceasefire agreements? The answer is obvious.

    You pick your “facts” (which are, “in fact,” not facts by any stretch of the imagination) to come to the conclusion you seek. We can agree on many shortcomings of the Bush Administrations in Iraq, but I, and others, can’t get to the point of discussing what we agree on while you continue to bury your head in the sand on well documented facts.

  16. Boyd says:

    And Hal, you don’t help your case by misrepresenting the facts. Here’s a quote from the document you linked. In fact, it’s the first text from the document:

    The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

    You’re statement? “Let’s not forget our own Army’s war college, which blasts the whole adventure as ‘a detour’.” You’re trying to mislead us with that statement.

    Back in Texas, that’s called a lie.

  17. Lee says:

    I looked at your site, Hal. Not healthy. Get counselling.

  18. Hal says:

    Bill, I award you 50 Chalabis of stoogness. No WMDs. No infrastructure. Nothing. He was in compliance and the UN inspections showed it. Even David Kay said “We were all wrong.”. So get with the program.

    Boyd: I award you one minor nit picking point. Still have 3 centcom generals, the author of the report itself, many prominent right wing hawks (Kristol comes quickly to mind). Revell in your miniscule victory.

    If you call that a lie in Texas, then you’re assertion in another comment about Chalabi not being the source of the WMD information (Judith Miller has admitted exactly that), then you’re propagating a bigger lie.

  19. Hal says:

    BTW, just for giggles, y’all should really read things like this. As they say in CA, wake up and smell the coffee.

  20. Boyd says:

    Hal, as I responded to your other non sequitur “proof” of sole sourcing, Judith Miller’s sources for her stories have nothing to do with setting national policy.

    What makes you think differently? Because that’s really odd.

  21. Hal, I award you 50 asshole points. David kay also said that Iraq was perhaps more aof a threat than we realized, but that doesn’t fit your tidy conventional narrative. You are a hack, picking and choosing elements of arguments to support your view.

    And I DO read things like that, which is why I’m intimately familiar with pollack’s criticisms of the Bush admin and descriptions of what is going wrong in Iraq.

  22. Hal says:

    A hack! My word, get my smelling salts.

    Boyd: You are correct, and on the other thread I acknowledged my error. Still, there is zero WMDs, zero anything.

    So where did the multiple sourcing of WMDs come from? Most of Britain’s intelligence on the subject came from the US (that’s their admission). The only other possible areas, I guess, is Israel, which has already admitted that they, themselves, have been completely duped as well.

    So I guess I’d just like a straw or two to figure out where all this evidence of WMDs was and where it came from.