Ten years ago today, U.S. forces began the “shock and awe” bombardment on Baghdad, the first shots of the second Iraq War. President Bush said troops needed to go in to disable Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program, but as we now know that program did not exist. Many of us suspected as much at the time. The flimsy pieces of evidence held up by the Bush Administration didn’t pass the smell test but a lot of mainstream reporters went for it and supported the war.
Now those journalists are looking back. One is Andrew Sullivan, most widely known as the former editor of New Republic and now the publisher of the independent online magazine The Dish. I find his recent “Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” thread profoundly frustrating. I’m glad he’s taking the time to double-guess himself, but the whole premise of the thread continues the dismissive attitude toward activists. Starting in 1995 I ran a website that acted as a publishing platform for much of the established peace movement. Yes, we were a collection of antiwar activists, but that doesn’t mean we were unable to use logic and apply critical thinking when the official assurances didn’t add up. I wrote weekly posts challenging New York Times reporter Judith Miller and the smoke-and-mirror shows of two administrations over a ten-year period. My essays were occasionally picked up by the national media—when they needed a counterpoint to pro-war editorials—but in general my pieces and those of the pacifist groups I published were dismissed.
When U.S. troops finally did invade Iraq in 2003, they encountered an Iraqi military that was almost completely incapacitated by years of U.N. sanctions. The much-hyped Republican Guard had tanks that had too many broken parts to run. Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs had been shut down over a decade earlier. The real lesson that we should take from the Iraq War was that the nonviolent methods of United Nations sanctions had worked. This isn’t a surprise for what we might call pragmatic pacifists. There’s a growing body of research arguing that nonviolent methods are often more effective than armed interventions (see for example, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, reviewed in the March Friends Journal (subscription required).
What if the U.S. had acknowledge there was no compelling evidence of WMDs and had simply ratcheted up the sanctions and let Iraq stew for another couple of years? Eventually a coup or Arab Spring would probably have rolled around. Imagine it. No insurgency. No Abu Ghraib. Maybe we’d even have an ally in Baghdad. The situations in places like Tehran, Damascus, Islamabad, and Ramallah would probably be fundamentally different right now. Antiwar activists were right in 2003. Why should journalists like Andrew Sullivan assume that this was an anomaly?