a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

With regrets, indeed: confessions of a one-time Iraq war supporter

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 19th, 2013

On the 10th anniversary of the single worst decision in U.S. history, my longtime online friend Aziz Poonawalla asked me to let him post a blog posting of mine from February 13, 2003 — With regrets: For war on Saddam — along with a few comments about how I came to repudiate my former position on Iraq …yet again… and what I know now.  I’ve done so a few times before — here, here, and here to name a few. But the occasion, and honesty, and sorrow at the debacle I too was a part of — however small — demand of me that I do so again.  Aziz is extremely gracious, and sees in my essay the culmination of an honest debate with myself that I came down on the wrong side of.   I don’t know.  All I know is lots of other people didn’t make my mistake, I shouldn’t have made it, and I wish I hadn’t.


I began realizing how wrong I was the day of the invasion.  One of my main reasons for supporting the war — after initial skepticism — was Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of chemical, biological, perhaps even nuclear “weapons of mass destruction” in the hands of a ruthless dictator and in defiance of UN resolutions.  Yet now that Iraq was being invaded, where were they?  So my support for the war was decaying from the outset, despite a rather elaborate set of arguments for the war — often merely counterarguments to peace, really — that I now see I was using as hedges.  Having made the leap to the “other side” of the argument, though, I was stubbornly unwilling to go all the way back; that seemed dishonest.  Yet over time new doubts reached a crescendo, from the uncontrolled looting after the fall of Baghdad, to the Shia uprisings of 2004 in a supposedly mending Iraq, to finally, irreconcilably, Abu Ghraib,which left me literally immobilized with shame, fury, and regret the morning I heard about it.  All of these things, but especially Abu Ghraib, convinced me I had nothing in common with the people who commanded and countenanced any of what had been done, by omission and commission, in Iraq, and by extension the policies they supported.

All I can say is: I’m so very, very sorry.  I’ll never do it again.  That’s no consolation whatsoever to the thousands of US soldiers who died, or the tens and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, so I don’t say it much, it’s inadequate and weak.  What is it I’ll never do again?  I’ll never accept at face value any administration’s claims for the need for war: given that there were no WMD to disarm Saddam of, the evidence for them should not have been accepted.  I’ll also never accept at face value again the idea that there’s an effective political opposition in Washington, or that the Beltway consensus represents some wisest possible sifting of the evidence, at least when things are as deadly serious as going to war.  In this respect, it was nearly as unforgiveable for Senators like Clinton, Edwards, or Kerry not to even look at intelligence estimates doubting Iraq’s WMD program as it was for Bush and Cheney to go to war.

And if I ever again find myself writing  — or reading — elaborate, hedging arguments for a war of choice, with pompously unforgiveable phrases like “come what may,”  I’ll remember 2003 and think: please, stop. Just stop.  Just shut up. Right now.

UPDATE, 3/21: crossposted at Aziz Poonawalla’s “City of Brass” blog; his prior post, “Iraq War retrospective: the liberal case for war #iraq10,” sets up the crosspost: “The debate over the Iraq war was not polarized according to liberal/conservative fault lines, but stretched across them. In fact, many liberals found themselves reluctantly swayed by the arguments for war, especially after Kenneth Pollack’s book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq was published in September 2002, roughly the one-year anniversary of 9-11 and 6 months prior to when the actual invasion began. In a nutshell, liberals were convinced by fear over the threat of Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs – nuclear and chemical; as well as humanitarian concerns. Both of these issues are still relevant in the recent and ongoing debates about action towards North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.  […] Far from being reflexively anti-Bush, or as warblogger Steven den Beste claimed, “wanting America to lose“, liberals were genuinely driven by patriotism and humanitarian concern for the muslims of Iraq under Saddam’s rule. The betrayal of that trust in authority, exemplified by Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN, has led to a deep-seated skepticism on the liberal left against Barack Obama’s policies. Liberals such as Glenn Greenwald are far more critical of Obama than they ever were of Bush, in part because of their experience a decade ago.”   Aziz’s entire “#iraq10” series is well worth any reader’s time; I thank him both for that series and for his kind words about me.

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