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July 27, 2010

I Was Wrong About the War in Iraq

by Stephen Littau

The following is a post I started a little over 2 years ago explaining my 180 concerning the war in Iraq. This is easily the most difficult post I’ve ever written because of the life and death nature of the subject matter and admitting being on the wrong side of this issue for so long. As tempting as it has been to continue to ignore this issue, I felt that I owed it to the readers of The Liberty Papers to finally explain myself before moving on to other posts.

I think that most Americans on both sides of the Iraq debate have the best interests of America at heart (to the extent there even is a debate anymore).

Much of the Iraq debate seems to be based on emotion rather than reason. Emotional talking points from the Left such as “Bush lied, people died” (though I do believe he over sold the threat), “Bush wanted to be a war time president,” and “the Iraq war is really about Halliburton” or “BIG oil” remain unconvincing to me. I took great exception to war critics who resort to calling anyone who supports any war for any reason a “war monger” or a “chicken hawk” (and I still do).

I also took great exception to those on the Right who would say that “you can’t support the troops if you don’t support the mission.” Such a claim is obviously ludicrous because some of the troops themselves do not support the mission. That would mean they do not support themselves! Arguments that individuals should not criticize the president because “we are at war” have always seemed Orwellian and scary to me.

Though I like to think of myself as a man of reason, reasonable people will fall into emotional traps from time to time; no one is 100% logical or reasonable 100% of the time on each and every issue. I fell into the emotional traps that many on the Right (and most everyone else for at least a short time) fell into in the aftermath of 9/11: anger, hatred, and fear.

Why I supported the War in Iraq

My immediate response to the aftermath of 9/11 was anger, hatred, and fear (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone). I was angry that these religious extremists attacked my country, I hated them for their reasons for doing so, and I feared more attacks would come at any moment. I wasn’t interested in justice for those responsible for the attacks, I wanted vengeance!

Though I never believed that Iraq had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, I believed that it was time to rethink my positions on how America should deal with rogue states such as Iraq. While I would not have supported invading a nation, overthrowing that nation’s government, and rebuilding a nation prior to 9/11, it seemed that America needed to be proactive and “preempt” such nations from even the possibility of attacking America first. I supported the invasion because I truly believed the WMD threat was real and that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would lead to liberty spreading throughout the region and thus would make America safer.

For a short time, this theory seemed to becoming a reality. U.S. and coalition troops defeated the Iraqi forces in record time. The cable news channels showed Iraqis pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue and in broken English saying such things as “Thank you America” and “Thank you Mr. Bush.” Shortly thereafter, President Bush made his infamous tail-hook landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln which had a large banner which read “Mission Accomplished.” I thought for sure that this meant the troops would be coming home and that the critics of the war had been proven wrong in their dire predictions. Sure, Saddam Hussein and his sons were still at large, there was still some violence in the immediate aftermath, and no stockpiles of WMD had been found but all these things would be taken care of in a matter of time. A few more months perhaps?

It all made a great deal of sense in theory but the reality seems to be quite different.

What Changed?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when I began to realize the invasion and subsequent occupation Iraq to be a mistake. When weapons hunters failed to find the WMD in the first couple of years after the invasion, my thinking was that perhaps the “preemption” approach was wrongheaded but because the troops were already there, the damage had already been done. I believed that because American foreign policy lead to the chaos that followed the invasion, it was the duty of our government to clean up the mess (i.e. the “you broke it, you bought it” argument). I further believed that if coalition troops pulled out of Iraq “the Islamofascists will follow us home” unless the Iraqi government was stable enough to handle the violence itself.

The truth of the matter is my reasoning was clouded by fear. This post I wrote in early 2007 illustrates this fear . We could not afford to allow our enemies to claim victory in Iraq as they would become “emboldened” and be encouraged to carry out future attacks both on American soil and abroad. This is not a war we could afford to lose; failure was not an option.

But when I was challenged by readers and fellow TLP contributors define exactly what “victory” in Iraq would look like, I struggled in vain to find a satisfactory answer. I now realize that if American troops were to leave tomorrow, next year, or 100 years from now, the radical Islamists will claim victory no matter when the troops leave. They are master propagandists and those who follow their ideology do not allow facts to get in the way of their beliefs. Some of these people don’t even acknowledge that the Holocaust even happened despite all of the mountains of documentary evidence to the contrary.

The first thing that has changed in my thinking is the fear factor. The whole purpose of terrorism is to cause people to be terrorized. When we overreact and do such things as pass the Patriot Act, surrender liberties we otherwise would not, or send troops to fight undeclared wars against countries that might have WMD and may directly or indirectly use these weapons against the U.S. or her allies, the terrorist act has accomplished its intended goal.

The second big change is my understanding of contemporary history. My thinking was that America’s military might would be enough to transform the Middle East from a region of oppression to a region of freedom. These were people yearning to be free. All that needed to happen was for the despots to be deposed, the people liberated, and our world would be more peaceful as a result.

In the Point post “A Case for Non-Intervention,” Brad correctly pointed out the flaws of this logic of fatal conceit: that man can shape the world around him according to his wishes. By the time I wrote the Counterpoint to Brad’s post, I was already beginning to see the error of my thinking but still holding out hope that somehow we could avoid the “reverse King Midas effect” this time.

But why would this time be any different?

At least since President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. has been intervening in internal affairs of other countries allegedly to “make the world safer for democracy.” But rather than making the world safer, in most cases it seems, American foreign policy has created more enemies rather than less. The conditions that led up to the adventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan are in many ways the result of American foreign policy. The continued presence of American troops occupying and nation building in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere fosters resentment among these populations.

Lessons Learned

One argument I used to make was that leaving Iraq as a failed mission would mean that those troops who had died for the cause would have died in vain. I no longer believe this necessarily has to be the case if we as a people learn the right lessons of Iraq.

There were people who opposed the war in the very beginning for very principled reasons (and I’m not talking about the so-called anti-war Democrats who seem to have nothing to say about Iraq now that their guy is in office). Others like me, unfortunately, had to learn the lessons of Iraq the hard way. I was naive and trusted that the government was acting in such a way that would make its citizens safer but I now see the error in this thinking. Neither North Korea nor Iran seems to be slowing down their WMD programs as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And despite the anti-terror policies that have been enacted since 9/11 and despite this war, our cities are likely as vulnerable if not more so than before 9/11. Our own government is a much greater threat to our liberties than al Qaeda ever will be.

It’s really the open-ended nature of this “war on terror” and failure on the part of our government to define who exactly the enemy is that makes the concept of victory unobtainable. Who specifically is our enemy? Is it just al Qaeda and/or the Taliban or is it anyone and everyone the U.S. government calls a “terrorist”? If we cannot even define exactly who our enemy is, how is victory even possible?

Once the enemy has been identified, the congress (not the president) should debate whether or not to declare war on the enemy. Any declaration of war should include not only who the enemy is but define in precise terms the meaning of victory (as opposed to making it up as they go along). The idea of going into another undeclared war in the future should be considered a complete non-starter (and the notion of “preemptive” wars of choice in particular).

Now What?

Its time for the people of Iraq to decide for themselves what kind of future they want. Our brave soldiers have done the heavy lifting for far too long. Its time for our brave troops to come home to their families and let them move on with their lives.

Ditto for Afghanistan. The only troops that should be left behind should be those with the sole mission of hunting Bin Laden and his extremist followers. The nation building mission should be brought to an end.

Its time to completely rethink the American foreign policy of the last 100 years or so. Has the presence of American troops made the world, and more importantly America safer? Is it still necessary to our national security to have so many troops stationed around the globe? (Was it ever?) What ever happened to the “walk softly” part of “walk softly but carry a big stick”?

Its time to move beyond the Cold War posture and allow other nations to determine their own futures.

In the mean time, we should be doing all we can to secure our own futures and help our wounded war veterans put their lives back together.

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8 Comments

  1. Admitting that one is wrong is definitely not an easy thing to do, Stephen. As you pointed out some of my arguments in our Point/Counterpoint debate had an effect on you, all I can say is that I had to make the exact same alterations to my philosophy that you did — I just hit them a bit earlier. After all, this was my first entry into the blogosphere. Certainly not a non-interventionist diatribe!

    The Iraq war was a continuation of failed policy that had been going on for nigh a century. Instead of fixing the policy, slowly extricating ourselves from building bigger and bigger messes, we chose to double down. It’s a bold strategy, and I think you and I would have agreed back in 2004-2005 that if it had worked, it would have been more than worth the cost in dollars and lives. It didn’t work, though, and I think we both now understand that it wasn’t a failure of men that caused it not to work, but an expected failure of that same continued policy.

    As you mention in your opening line, you believe that supporters and opponents of the war have America’s best interests at heart. I agree with you there (and that the same sentiment extends more widely to other debates); an agreement that many don’t share. There are many today who think that Obama’s goal is to damage America. I, rather, think that he’s disastrously wrong, but not deliberatively evil. Thus, when I had the Point/Counterpoint with you, I tried to show that our foreign policy won’t and can’t work, not that the intentions were faulty. Intentions and results aren’t identical, and extending that concept from the welfare state to the military arena is what truly turned me from a small-government conservative into an anti-government libertarian.

    Good post. Thanks for sharing your story. Too many people are unwilling to evaluate some of these deeply-held beliefs, and avoid contrary evidence rather than let it threaten their worldview. That you did so — and that you admitted the change — speaks well of you.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 27, 2010 @ 10:15 pm
  2. Well said, Stephen, and with class.

    Comment by bluntobject — July 27, 2010 @ 11:06 pm
  3. I’ll echo Stephen. I made all of the same mistakes.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — July 28, 2010 @ 5:02 am
  4. “It all made a great deal of sense in theory but the reality seems to be quite different.”

    Since the 2008 election, many on the right are trampling one another in a stampede away from the various Neocon mantras that guided these lemmings into Cheney’s wet dream.

    “We were just so angry and scared after 9/11 we couldn’t think straight!” they say. Well my principals weren’t swayed by 9/11. War wasn’t the answer then, it isn’t the answer now, and it will never be the answer. I’m happy to take credit for having been right all along.

    You’re incorrect when you say the time has finally come to rethink American foreign policy. That time came about 25 years ago. But it really doesn’t matter, since your sudden distaste for foreign entanglements probably has more to do with our democratically elected, Democratic President and congressional majority than it does with the reality you previously chose to ignore in favor of some wild-eyed “theory” that happened to appease your inner chicken-hawk.

    Your disingenuous revelation would have more wisely come on the heals of any of the following: the President asserts an authority to take the country to war unopposed and unfunded; Guantanamo; Abu Ghraib; the truth about America’s torture policy; Blackwater scandals (pick one); No-bid Haliburton contracts (pick one); Tens of Thousands of Dead Civilians (pick one); this list goes on.

    I ask you: why now? After all this time, all these lies, all this pointless death and destruction, all these seeds of future enemies planted, why now? While I welcome any and all into the anti-war fold for whatever reason, I’m guessing your about face has more to do with a midterm election than it does a new concern for humanity. Either that or you’re a terrible judge of character, motive and facts as well as a curiously slow learner.

    Whatever the case, I’ll look forward to marching with you in the next anti-war rally.

    Comment by JD — July 28, 2010 @ 8:40 am
  5. My only thought is that US attempts to intervene in other nations’ affairs goes back a lot longer than President Wilson; in fact, it goes all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine, which specifically prohibits European nations from interfering in the Americas (not that you, Stephen, wouldn’t know that, but for other commentators and readers) – even when they may have an interest in doing so.

    You, sir, have great class to write like this.

    Comment by Veritas — July 28, 2010 @ 8:41 am
  6. Nice of you to man-up.

    Well said.

    Comment by John V — July 28, 2010 @ 8:50 am
  7. Thanks for the encouraging words Brad, Blunt Object, Jeff, Veritas, and John.

    As for JD, I can assure you that this post has nothing to do with this or any election. One of the reasons I didn’t finish and post this during the 2008 campaign was I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression (for what it’s worth, I voted for the anti-war candidate Bob Barr rather than the pro war candidates McCain and Obama). I plan to vote Libertarian in all races this time around because for one I am a Libertarian and two the GOP has done nothing to regain my trust or my vote.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — July 31, 2010 @ 10:24 am
  8. Good point Veritas. The reason I say Wilson is because he brought foreign intervention to a whole new level sending troops to intervene in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, the U.S.S.R., and Panama.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — July 31, 2010 @ 10:34 am

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