The Point | Lessons of being wrong on Iraq

Some of us who bought the line about an urgent weapons threat have lost faith in official Washington opinion.

Four years ago this month, I was writing columns in this space that advocated going to war against Saddam Hussein. I was wrong. We should not have invaded.

Many of my readers went to great lengths to point this out to me then, before the bombs started falling and the tanks rolled, before the carnage began to mount, before the suicide bombers, IEDs and Shiite death squads went to work, but I was tenacious in my error. It certainly wasn't the first time I have been wrong, nor will it be the last, but it was a more serious lapse than most, and I have tried to learn from it.

My reason for supporting the invasion was that I believed the Iraqi tyrant had weapons of mass destruction, and that he would, without hesitating, pass such weapons along to Islamist terrorists who would use them. I based that belief on the fact that Saddam had owned and used such weapons in the past, on the reports of U.S. intelligence agencies, United Nations findings, and, most important, on Saddam's willingness to endure more than a decade of severe sanctions rather than allow weapons inspectors full access to his country. Why would he do that, I figured, unless he had something to hide?

It turns out Saddam was bluffing. He had no such weapons, but he apparently felt that, as long as other countries believed he did, Iraq was safe from outside invasion. In this, as with so many other things during his bloody reign, he was wrong.

I acknowledged that apparently we had been misled on the weapons issue, and did so four years ago, before I stopped writing this column for a time. Since I've resumed, and since the anniversary approaches, it seems a fitting time to take stock of it again.

I am glad Saddam is gone. If we had not toppled him, the United Nations would by now have lifted sanctions, and he would have gotten right to work manufacturing the weapons we feared he had. The danger of his giving such devices to terrorists would be real and present - witness the barbarous attacks on civilians by Sunni insurgents. None of these frightening prospects posed an immediate danger in 2003, but I, like many others, thought they did, and thought they were the only good reasons to attack.

So the biggest lesson I have taken from my error is to be more skeptical of intelligence reports, to look past the proffered analysis at the evidence itself. It was always clear that the Bush administration was manipulating information to make its case - a practice hardly new in White House annals - but the fact that some former Clinton administration officials agreed with the analysis gave it bipartisan weight. The endorsement of Colin Powell also mattered heavily in my mind. I know Powell, and knew him to be a cautious and deliberate general. So when he presented the administration's case forcefully before the United Nations, it mattered.

It shouldn't have. Powell has since revealed that he was hardly persuaded himself and regrets the whole performance. The sad truth is that our intelligence agencies are unimpressive; we just aren't that good at penetrating the mysteries of foreign societies. We need desperately to get better. I doubt I will ever respect official opinion from Washington as much as I once did, and I am not alone. It will be a long time before America regains the credibility it has lost.

Those of us who believed the WMD argument were gullible, which is bad enough, but a worse mistake was to embrace the arrogant idea of remaking Iraq in a democratic mold and thence reshaping the Middle East. I am pleased I never bought this bridge, and I think those who did have a larger error to confess. One of the most notable examples, outside the Bush administration, was the esteemed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose work I admire. Friedman hammered this messianic vision of democracy forcefully, dismissing weapons as a secondary concern. Today he argues - as do others in his camp - that the idea was sound, but the execution botched, which is like the man who says he could have jumped over the moon if only he had worn the right shoes.

The fault here is in placing more weight on your idea of how the world works than on messy reality itself. It lacks humility before the infinite complexity and variability of human behavior and human societies. Democracy may still take root in Iraq, and it may eventually spread throughout the region, but to believe we could somehow steer this process directly and efficiently was breathtakingly arrogant, and a shabby basis for spilling blood.

Plenty of people got it right. Give George Herbert Walker Bush credit for having the good sense not to topple Saddam in 1991, foreseeing the unmanageable chaos that would follow. My Inquirer colleague Trudy Rubin saw it, as did my Atlantic colleague James Fallows. Another notable example was Scott Ritter, the former Marine and U.N. weapons inspector who campaigned vigorously with the news that Saddam did not have such weapons. He spent months being kicked around on television talk shows, weathering a mounting tide of scorn, trying to halt the war machine.

I remember being on one of those shows with him. I wondered why, in the face of so much supposedly informed contradiction, he persisted.

Scott, I see it now.

Contact Mark Bowden at