This post first appeared at The Huffington Post.
WASHINGTON — Though there were some bumps, leading Republican presidential candidates in the past week settled on an Iraq war narrative. Yes, the intelligence turned out to be faulty, so much so that there wouldn’t be a strong enough case to authorize the invasion in retrospect. But there was consensus that at the time President George W. Bush made the call, something had to be done about the threat posed by Iraq.
For those lawmakers who actually voted against the war, and those journalists who reported skeptically before the attack, this is misleading at best and self-serving at worst. Watching the revisionist story take hold 13 years after they opposed the invasion is reviving the frustration and marginalization they felt back then.
“I was amazed, absolutely amazed at how people were supporting going to war on the basis of things that just weren’t so,” said former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), one of a handful of members who opposed the invasion. “It was clear as it could be. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. None of the intel suggested they had anything to do with 9/11 and the whole rationale for WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was just very, very thin for anybody who read the intelligence reports.” As for the 2016 candidates’ comments, he said: “It is just a rewriting of history in an attempt for everybody to cover their extraordinary mistake; probably one of the most serious mistakes in the military and diplomatic history of the United States, and they were all complicit.”
Presidential campaigns don’t lend themselves to nuanced discussions. But the conversation over the origins of the Iraq war, to the war’s initial detractors, has been particularly narrow. Asking candidates whether they would have authorized the invasion knowing what they know now tripped up former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who stumbled for days with the question. But it has revealed little about the foreign policy world views of the other candidates.
The more interesting question, war skeptics said, is what the candidates would have done during the months when the invasion was being debated — a time when airing doubts about the intelligence or the motives of the Bush administration carried political risk.
“I have to say, not being privy to intelligence briefings as others were, I probably had the benefit of objectivity,” former Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO), a war critic, told The Huffington Post. “That is to say, I wasn’t being misled by intelligence briefings by the administration or anyone else. But it didn’t pass the smell test. And, to be honest with you, I didn’t trust the people promoting the war in Iraq. I knew many of them and thought they had a different agenda. They had in mind to use Iraq as an American political and military base in the Middle East and reach out from there to impose peace on the region. It was a grand scheme, but many bridges too far.”
To hear many former and current supporters of the war tell it now, there was remarkably little dissent at the time of the invasion. The case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was shared not just by Democrats and Republicans, but by other countries and by previous US administrations, they say. Bush adopted these widely shared conclusions and launched a well-intentioned war based on bad intelligence.
Subsequent reporting complicates this narrative. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration began considering striking Iraq and sought to link Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda. The administration dismissed concerns about the reliability of certain intelligence, and suppressed information that cast doubt on Iraq’s weapons programs. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) who served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, would later accuse the White House of a systematic effort to dupe Congress that was so thorough that it irrevocably damaged Congress’ trust in the executive office and compelled him to oppose the war authorization.
Major news outlets didn’t help. Many played a role in selling the war by amplifying bogus claims of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link, along with the faulty WMD intelligence. McClatchy newspapers national security correspondent Jonathan Landay, who was part of the reporting team providing a skeptical counterpoint to the media drumbeat, noted the Bush administration “created a parallel intelligence operation” that included the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon. That office selectively strung together intelligence that contradicted the CIA’s correct assessment at the time that there was no link between Hussein and Al Qaeda.
That messy history is mostly lost in the simplistic, knowing-what-we-know-now conversation.
“What was driving a lot of this was the politics, not the intelligence,” Landay said in an interview on Monday. “It was the Bush administration’s promotion of an invasion based on bogus and exaggerated intelligence that created a political bandwagon, which it was intended to do, for popular support for the invasion.”
The media’s revisiting of the Iraq war through the lens of the 2016 election comes at an incredibly fragile time for the country. The Islamic State took control of the major Iraq city of Ramadi on Sunday, sparking renewed debate over America’s role in the region. Landay suggested journalists focus on what’s happening now on the ground, rather than what politicians think about a 13-year-old vote. “Why are we asking hypotheticals?” he said.
Part of why Landay and others find the hypothetical so irksome is that it absolves politicians and the press of addressing the nitty-gritty of why the country went to war. It also asks those running for the White House to place themselves in Bush’s shoes without context, from the manipulation of intelligence to the real-time opposition to the invasion.
Bill Moyers, whose 2007 documentary Buying the War charged the press with falling down on the job in not scrutinizing the Bush administration’s claims, said in an email to HuffPost that Washington is marked by what the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz called “a refusal to remember.”
Moyers suggested that many in the Washington press corps won’t seriously examine how prescient Iraq war critics were back then, “because it would require them to be somewhere else on the night of the Gridiron than sitting by their sources from the Bush era.” As a result, he said, recent coverage of whether to invade “bears little relation to the past and less understanding of its implications.”
There were 133 members of the House who opposed the war authorization, along with 23 senators. The current Democratic frontrunner for president, Hillary Clinton, was not among them. Hart said he believes that further prevents a more illuminating discussion about the war’s origins. Still, he said he sees Clinton as one of the few candidates capable of the job of president. And it’s precisely the run-up to the Iraq war that illuminates her qualification, he said.
After Iraq, Hart said, “we should insist that any candidate who wants to be president have some familiarity with the intelligence community. Presidents have to be smart enough to know what questions to ask, not just of the CIA, but of defense intelligence and other organization. You can’t hire that. … You have to get inside the mentality of that community and how it thinks and how it operates.”
Hart acknowledged that his standard would prevent most governors from serving. So be it.
“It means that those who decide when they are 11 years old that they want to be president ought to think about things like this instead of how to glad-hand and raise money,” he said.