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The Hypothetical Iraq War Question Everyone Is Asking Is Completely Stupid

jeb bush

The media is asking Republicans whether they would have fought the Iraq War “knowing what we know now.” This is stupid on five different levels.


The mainstream media’s latest brainwave is to ask GOP candidates whether they would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq “if you had known what we know now.”

This is appallingly stupid on five different levels.

1) It’s a gimme.

It amounts to saying, “Please, senator, let me give you an opportunity to disavow a politically unpopular idea.” Which no politician who knows what he’s doing is going to pass up. Instead of being a tough, probing question, it’s an invitation for politicians to waffle and dissemble and congratulate themselves on the crispness of their 20/20 hindsight. Jeb Bush probably should have done that, and I’m not sure whether I think better or worse of him for not giving a slick answer. On the one hand, he should have been more prepared. On the other hand, I had chalked him up as the guy who would always give us glib, over-rehearsed answers, so it’s refreshing to see him stumble through a question in a way that seems genuine.

But now that it’s out there, everyone else will have a glib answer—even those who, like Hillary Clinton, actually did vote for the Iraq War knowing what they knew then. But she’ll have a good Clintonian answer about how wise she might have been—if the press ever gets around to asking her, or if she ever gets around to taking questions.

2) The whole point of the decision was that we didn’t know.

Here’s the really stupid part about it. We didn’t know then what we know now. Nobody did. And that’s the whole context in which the decision was made.

A major part of the justification for the war was the fact that we didn’t know for sure whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and we couldn’t know while Saddam Hussein was in power. He was evading UN inspections, filing giant reports of suspect validity, and meanwhile telling his own generals that the army had weapons of mass destruction. The reason, in hindsight, seems pretty clear: he wanted all of his neighbors, and presumably his internal enemies as well, to think that he had WMDs so they would be afraid of him. We weren’t going to get straight answers while he was still in power.

So the whole point of the question is: would you have invaded Iraq, if you had known information that we could only discover for certain by invading Iraq? It’s a nonsensical question that tells you nothing—absolutely nothing—about what a candidate would have done in the original moment.

3) It’s only half the story.

The media wants to take as known all of the negative consequences of the invasion—while not taking into account any negative consequences that would have come from the decision not to invade—for example, if the sanctions regime had collapsed and Saddam had managed to restart WMD programs, as we know he wanted to do.

Or, more concretely, one of the consequences of the invasion of Iraq was that Moammar Ghadafi immediately gave up Libya’s WMD program. In investigating his program, we uncovered the nuclear proliferation network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. What if that had never happened? So the media is telling us that we should want to avoid all the negative consequences of the invasion, without thinking about any of the negative consequences that would have resulted from the old status quo.

4) Can we prevent the insurgency, instead?

If we knew then what we know now, we would also have known all about the threat posed by the insurgency, and we would have a much better idea of how to defeat it or even prevent it. We could have invaded with more troops, secured the borders to prevent Iranian and Syrian support for the insurgents, orchestrated a much better transition to Iraqi rule, and while we were at it, maybe rushed through some earlier promotions for a few generals named Petraeus and Odierno, who really seemed to know what they were doing. You get the idea. All of this would have dramatically shortened the war, vastly reduced its cost in lives and money, and made a better outcome more likely.

If we’re going to endow our past selves with knowledge of the future, how come we can’t use that knowledge to fight a better war? How is it that the only thing we’re allowed to do differently is to stay home? It’s almost like the question is designed to elicit a predetermined answer.

5) It depends on where you end the story.

Orson Welles once said that if you want a happy ending, it depends on where you end the story. How you would act “knowing what we know now” depends on when you ask the question.

If you had asked that question in early 2009, for example, the answer may have seemed less obvious. The cost of the war had been much greater than expected, but the result was looking a lot better. What the question doesn’t ask—which is just as relevant—is whether you would have made all the decisions Barack Obama made from 2009 to today, if you knew then what we know now. If you knew that ISIS would take over huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, would you have backed Nouri al-Maliki’s disastrous power grab in 2009, which alienated Iraq’s Sunnis? Would you have pressed for a hasty withdrawal of US troops, or would you have kept a contingent of combat troops to prevent the jihadists from coming back? Would you have sat on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war for so long, neither backing the regime nor providing any substantive support for the moderates, leaving the jihadists to take over? Would you do all of those things, knowing what you know now?

Ah, but that would defeat the purpose of the question, which is to pressure Republicans to join everyone else in blaming George W. Bush for everything bad that has ever happened in foreign policy—and deflecting all responsibility from his successor.

A tweet from Olivia Nuzzi pinpoints the stupidity of this kind of question.

Think about it: you could single-handedly prevent the rise of a monstrous dictator, save the lives of millions of Jews, and prevent the world’s most horrific war. But in the actual moment, of course, you would just be murdering somebody’s baby, which would make you the monster. This is the basic problem with retrospective hypotheticals. They invite us to ignore or rewrite the actual context of past decisions; they allow us to make easy assurances that we would have gotten everything right and never made any mistakes; they tend to confuse more than they enlighten.

What would I do if I could go back to 2003 knowing what we know now?

I would have scraped up as much money as I could and bet it all on 12 years of successive football, baseball, and basketball championships. I would have shorted the market in 2008 and gone all in again exactly as the market bottomed out. I would have tracked down a pimply-faced kid named Zuckerberg and insisted that he take my money as an early investor in The Facebook.

Then I’d be fabulously rich, I’d have no need to toil for my daily wage, and I’d be off at my villa in Tuscany right now, too busy living la dolce vita to sit here explaining all the problems with dumb counterfactual fantasies.

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