How could they have been so cocksure in the face of so much contrary opinion from seemingly well qualified people? They had good reason for their self-confidence. Over the previous quarter century, the group around George W. Bush – famously nick-named “the Vulcans” – had joined battles over the Cold War and over the Gulf War against many of the same people who would later oppose the Iraq War. The Vulcans had proved right; their opponents had proved wrong.
And those of us who followed and supported the Vulcans fully expected that history would repeat itself in Iraq: boldness would win.
I remember vividly a conversation I had in my gym’s locker room with a Republican friend just before the war started. I had begun to worry – with the Turks balking, Rumsfeld posturing and the war plan nebulous and quite possibly under-manned. His response was simple (paraphrasing from memory): our military is so great these days they can accomplish anything. That tells you the impact of the post-Cold War triumphalism that had slowly replaced strategic thinking in our late-imperial phase. For my part, I remember reassuring a non-political skeptic the following (same paraphrase) on the eve of the war: You wait. We’ll find bunkers crammed with chemical weapons and possibly nuclear weapons that could end up in al Qaeda’s hands and in our cities. I promise you they’re there.
I trusted Colin Powell. I’d never seen a military intervention fail, except in Somalia. I’d seen new democracies spring from barren soil in post-Soviet Europe. Saddam was a monster and could never be removed peacefully. I became convinced by my own conviction. Here is my late April 2003 post clinging to the idea that Saddam and al Qaeda were in contact (a shady story in the Sunday Telegraph):
We know that Saddam had elaborate designs to make chemical and biological weapons. No serious person doubts that – although whether he tried to destroy evidence before the war, how extensive it was, what exactly it amounted to, are still questions in search of good answers. (But we’re getting warmer, it seems.) So what does a free country do when confronted with an enemy state, with WMDs, that we strongly suspect is in league with terrorists like al Qaeda, but cannot prove without invading? It’s tough. My view is that, after 9/11, we have little option but to launch a pre-emptive strike and hope for retroactive justification. But I understand why people demand proof before such action. This new finding – and I bet there will be more like it – strengthens my position, I think. The threat was not the weapons as such; it was the regime, its capacity to make and use such weapons and its potential or actual alliance with al Qaeda.
Looking back, the key phrase in the following sentence is pretty clear:
My view is that, after 9/11, we have little option but to launch a pre-emptive strike and hope for retroactive justification.
I’m not excusing my confirmation bias, my broad brush against opponents of the war (although I refuse to accept that they were all skeptical of the WMDs’ existence; many were just anti-Bush and anti-war), or my violation of just war doctrine. But the truth is: 9/11 worked. It terrorized me and it terrorized a lot of people. When you are in a state of terror, the odds of future terror seem much greater and the risks of inaction graver. Yes, I was excitable and over-reacted. The only solace is that I was a pillar of calm and prudence compared with the people running the country.