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Friday, July 8, 2016

The Iraq War and the American and British Ways of Retrospection

The Iraq War and the American and British Ways of Retrospection

by Paul R. Pillar
The United States and Britain each have suffered from the blunder of invading Iraq in 2003—and have made many others suffer as well, not least of all the Iraqis. But the release in Britain of the mammoth Chilcot report is a reminder of how differently the two allies have treated their coming to terms with the blunder. That difference had been apparent even before this week. An earlier British inquiry, the Butler report, had explicitly pointed out, for example, the improper mingling of intelligence analysis and policy—which, although such mingling occurred on this side of the Atlantic as well, has never been directly and officially acknowledged in the same way in the United States. Now the Chilcot report, in its extremely thorough examination of all aspects of the decision to go to war and of what followed, has made the trans-Atlantic difference in retrospection even greater.
Oh, sure, there have been some official after-the-fact inquiries in the United States related to the Iraq War. They have served a cathartic function and also have served to divert attention and blame away from those—Democrats as well as Republicans—who supported the invasion at the time. The Senate intelligence committee and a White House-appointed commission both examined in minute detail intelligence work about weapons of mass destruction. But the so-called WMD issue was not the driver of the war. As super-war-hawk Paul Wolfowitz later admitted in an unguarded comment, it was just an issue that people could agree on as a rationale for launching the war. And even a firm conclusion that weapons programs exist in the hands of a nasty regime does not constitute a case for launching a major offensive war. (Anyone up for war in North Korea?)
It was the highly costly, destructive, destabilizing aftermath of overthrowing Saddam Hussein that made launching the war a blunder. The war would have been highly costly, destructive, and destabilizing even if every word that the Bush administration said about WMD had been true. And conversely, if the war had ushered in the sort of blossoming of democracy and stability in Iraq that its most fervent promoters envisioned, the war would not be widely considered today a blunder and we would not be seeing 2.6 million-word reports of commissions of inquiry, WMD or no WMD.

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