The worsening emergency in Iraq, as forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria move toward Baghdad, has occasioned commentary from a number of architects and advocates of the 2003 U.S. invasion: Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Frederick Kagan, Paul Bremer, Bill Kristol, and others. It's worth listening to what they have to say; together, they share an significant amount of experience and knowledge about the Iraqi situation.
Of course, they also share a significant amount of blame for what is happening. And what's missing from nearly all of their commentary is a simple acknowledgement of that fact. They don't have to remain silent, don't have to go into hiding, but their arguments would have far greater force if they noted that their own actions and earlier advocacy helped create the current mess.
Cheney, as the highest-ranking member of the group, bears a particular responsibility. Yet in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (co-written with daughter Liz Cheney), the former vice president simply does not take into account the Bush administration's failures in Iraq. Reciting President Obama's own failures, Cheney writes: "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many."
There's a remarkable lack of self-examination in that line.
It's not that Cheney, with a crisis raging, should write a piece apologizing for decisions made years ago. It's just that any article pointing out the Obama administration's mistakes in Iraq would be far more credible if it included even a brief admission of the Bush administration's errors, too. Instead, Cheney accuses Obama of "snatch[ing defeat] from the jaws of victory" in Iraq.
"When Mr. Obama and his team came into office in 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq had been largely defeated, thanks primarily to the heroic efforts of U.S. armed forces during the surge," Cheney writes. Well, why was there a surge? Because the Bush administration had so badly bungled the situation from 2003 to 2007, unleashing chaos and murderous forces in Iraq. More than 4,200 American troops died, and more than 30,000 were wounded in Iraq under Bush and Cheney's administration. How can Cheney expect his indictment of Obama's mistakes to have the influence it deserves without at least some acknowledgement of that fact?
Likewise Bremer, who was the U.S. envoy in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed of his own Monday, Bremer laid out a prescription for the insertion of U.S. special forces, development of increased intelligence capability, and use of air strikes. "As I wrote in these pages in December 2011 after the last of our military left Iraq, 'President Obama made a serious mistake,'" Bremer said. "The withdrawal of all American forces has now had its predictable results."
Missing from Bremer's argument was any recognition that Paul Bremer played a role in creating today's problems, and in a later television appearance, Bremer also resisted any such acknowledgement. But what would be wrong with conceding his own mistakes — if only to present those mistakes as the basis for greater perspective and wisdom about today's crisis?
In a short piece in The Weekly Standard, Kristol and Kagan don't point fingers at Obama; instead their article is an agenda for action that "would require a willingness to send American forces back to Iraq." The authors make a tacit admission of the elephant in the room by adding: "Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations."
While Kristol's and Kagan's article seems likely to set off less angry reaction than Cheney's attack on Obama, an acknowledgement of their own advocacy of the 2003 invasion and subsequent war would undoubtedly have broadened their argument's appeal.
Instead, on ABC Sunday, Kristol abandoned his earlier restraint. The ISIS insurgency is "a disaster unfortunately made possible, or certainly made more likely, by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011," Kristol said. "President Obama said two days before election day, in 2012, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, the war in Iraq is over. That was enough to get him re-elected. But how does it look today? Al Qaeda is on the path to death, the war in Iraq is over -- neither is true. And it's a disaster for our country."
Then there is Wolfowitz. In television appearances in the last few days, the former top Bush Defense Department official has bristled at being called the "architect" of the Iraq war. "I'm not the architect of the war," Wolfowitz said Tuesday on CNN. "If I were the architect, it would have been handled very differently."
Unlike some of his former Bush colleagues, Wolfowitz acknowledged the Bush administration had mistakes in Iraq. He just argued those mistakes were made by the man at the top, and not himself. "When George Bush realized his strategy in Iraq was failing, he said, 'I got it wrong,'" Wolfowitz explained. "[Obama] has got to stop saying al Qaeda is on the road to defeat. He's got to say, 'Things are worse than I thought. Here is what we're going to do.' The blame game would stop immediately."
One voice has been missing from all the commentary on Iraq, and it is that of George W. Bush himself. The former president has stayed silent about the current crisis, but has in the past maintained that he does not believe the 2003 invasion was a mistake. Still, perhaps more than any other top official in his administration, Bush has admitted deep personal failures in the Iraq misadventure. In his 2011 memoir, Decision Points, Bush went through the various reasons he believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the role it played in his decision to invade. But he ultimately came down to this: "The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false."
Such an acknowledgement would go a long way to enhance the war advocates' credibility as they urge a strong U.S. response to the Iraqi crisis. Rather than disqualify them from speaking out, it could lend depth and perspective to their proposals on what to do now. They don't have to grovel, even if that's what some of their adversaries want. They just have to concede they played a part in creating the problem they now hope to fix.