January 22, 2019


I spent last Wednesday morning trying to make professor Steven Spiegel squirm.

I thought if I kept up what must have seemed like a monomaniacal fixation on a single question, he would have to appease me with a single simple answer.

My question was: Was the war with Iraq right or wrong?

The question has obsessed me lately because, well, it should.

At least 487 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq since the war began, and at least 2,800 have been wounded. The situation is far from stabilized, and the threat looms that the country will fall prey to a radical Shiite hegemony, or civil war or become a base for Al Qaeda. Should any of that happen, it would be hard, if not impossible, to justify the death and destruction this war has wrought.

Those of us who were basically supportive of the U.S. invasion need to look at our past arguments in light of the current reality and ask ourselves, were we right or wrong?

I know there are those people on the right who scoff at such questions.

"What is truly astonishing is not our inability in six months to create an Arab utopia," writes Victor Davis Hanson in this month’s Commentary, "but the sheer audacity of our endeavor to send our liberating troops into the heart of an ancient and deeply chauvinistic culture that over the past decades had reduced itself to utter ruin."

Pulling Saddam Hussein from his hole, Iraqi mass graves and shaking up Middle East dictatorships are all justification enough for them. Never mind that none of these go to president’s original and as yet unjustified reason for the war, the threat posed by Saddam’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Those on the left will scoff as well. The fall of a patently evil dictator, the liberation of a tyrannized people, the removal of a long-term threat to our security, none of these justify an invasion and occupation that usurped international law and, in their view, rendered the world not more secure but less.

"We invaded Iraq illegally," said former U.S. arms inspector Scott Ritter in a recent interview, "a reality that requires every American to stare his or herself in the mirror and say: We have collectively failed as Americans, in embracing the theocracy of evil, which allows the concept of the ends justify the means to take hold in a nation that’s supposed to be ruled by the Constitution and the rule of law."

Before the war, I counted myself within what I suspected was the largest set of American Jewish opinion.

"The soldiers who are fighting this war have our absolute support," I wrote in March 2003. "Our support for the war they are engaged in is, however, conditional — not on the actions of our soldiers, but on the decisions of their commander-in-chief."

I spoke with experts whose judgment I respected — like Spiegel, who is professor of political science at UCLA and director of Mideast Regional Security Programs for UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations. I read others, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And from them I saw the potential for good that could come out of a new Iraq war, if — big if here on everyone’s part — both the war and its aftermath were handled intelligently.

Fast-forward almost a year and I’m still in what I suspect is the largest third of American Jewish opinion regarding the war. There’s some who think that no matter what, the war was worth it. There’s another group who, no matter what, believes it was wrong. And there’s the largest, middle third who assented cautiously to the war.

"Most Jews were anxious about the war but forced themselves to be hopeful," said Jonathan Jacoby of the Israel Policy Forum, where Spiegel is a national scholar. Their — our — support hinged not on what the president said he would do, or planned to do, but on what he actually did.

But does the fact that my support was conditional, as was Speigel’s, absolve us from answering the question of whether the war was right or wrong? How dare we give equivocal answers to life and death questions?

Unfair as it is, I wanted Spiegel to squirm on account of my conscience. Was his decision to support the war, albeit conditionally, right or wrong?

"It’s oversimplistic to ask whether we were right to go in or not," Spiegel answered me. "Bush was going to go in. It was a question of how, not whether."

Spiegel said his sources told him that the weapons of mass destruction posed a serious threat, that the war would be over quickly, and that the real war would take place in the aftermath.

"The only thing people got wrong is the WMD issue," he said. "The fear was we’d win the war and mess up the peace. But the Middle East is better off without Saddam Hussein."

The fact that Bush charged into the war without broad international support and a postwar strategy was a serious error that we may yet pay an even bigger price for, Spiegel said.

He doesn’t buy the administration’s counterargument that the aftermath of even a successful war is messy, and that the press and the public need to be patient.

"It’s a tautology," he said. "If you shake things up, then they’ll be shaken up. Everyone knew you were going to be stuck if you don’t have a plan, and the administration threw out — literally — the State Department’s plan."

Our conversation veered toward a cost-benefit analysis. The war had something to do with Libya’s recent openness. It might help us tame an even larger threat — Iranian nuclear weapons — but Spiegel criticized the administration’s refusal to engage the current regime there. As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, Spiegel said Bush said he would use the war’s success to advance the "road map," but he hasn’t.

"We haven’t gotten the bang we were supposed to get for the Iraqi buck," Spiegel said. "It’s not the war that was the mistake, it was the preparation for its aftermath. This administration has a problem with implementation. There’s a sense that you can say something or do something and the problem all gets resolved."

But, I reminded Spiegel, pushing one last time, the administration had problems with implementation prior to the invasion, and those problems were one more reason to oppose the war, according to its opponents. So, were we right, or wrong?

Spiegel paused before he answered. He’s a patient, serious and very decent man, and I was exasperating him. His sources in the Middle East tell him the situation in Iraq, far from good, is better than the American press would have us believe. Beyond that, he said, "I’m reluctant to say it was a mistake because I’ve met too many Iraqis who have suffered because of Saddam. And you can’t be unresponsive to that."

I let off. Evidently, as much as we all might have wished otherwise, there are no simple answers to complicated questions.