by Philip Bobbitt
June 3, 2015

At least two presidential candidates — Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton — are being flayed with the question, “If you had known in 2003 what you know now, would you have supported the Iraq invasion?”

Each has answered in a different way; indeed, Jeb Bush seems to have answered in more than one way. As a law professor accustomed to tormenting students with hypotheticals, how would I grade the politicians’ answers?

The “C” answer would be the frank assertion that while mistakes were made, the politician being asked — Dick Cheney, perhaps — would have gone to Baghdad anyway because we are better off now than we were before. This answer might also include the additional reminder that the end of the Iraq War is not yet in sight, so the ultimate judgment on its wisdom cannot yet be made. This is a poor, though not unreasonable, answer because it exhibits signs of “Parmenides’ Fallacy,” or the mistake of comparing the present state of affairs with a past state to assess the outcome of a decision. This is fallacious, though we often do it, because contra Parmenides, who believed all change was an illusion, the world doesn’t stand still. Regardless of the decision made, today’s world will be different from yesterday’s world. To judge a policy correctly, we must instead ask whether we would be better off now had we made a different decision in the past.

The “B” answer (perhaps Jeb Bush’s) is that after seeing how things have turned out, the politician wouldn’t have wanted to go to war in Iraq in the first place. On the one hand, we can’t possibly know the future, so given what was known at the time, the decision to intervene was correct. On the other hand, even if we could know the future, we surely wouldn’t have contrived the present state of affairs in Iraq or the death, destruction and suffering that has led us to that state. Not only is this answer contradictory, it is indecisive.

The “A” answer can be found in a carefully wrought paragraph in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices (2014). “If I had known then what I know now, I never would have voted to give the president authority.” As she said during the June 2007 Democratic debate, “Obviously if I had known then what I know now about what the president would do with the authority that was given him, I would not have voted” to authorize the war. In her answer, she wisely does not speculate as to what she would have done with that authority if she were president. After all, Congress had enthusiastically called for regime change in Iraq during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Instead, her answer focuses on how George W. Bush exercised that power. It seems pretty clear that he largely bungled it through an incompetent occupation and tried to retrieve the initiative with a decision at the 11th hour to surge U.S. forces in 2007.

The “A+” answer might surprise you. If we had known in 2003 what we know now, we certainly should have gone into Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein. The campaign by which this was done was a military triumph. The war aim of regime change has made the Iranian nuclear talks that are currently underway possible, something that never would have happened if Hussein’s wealthy, ambitious and sociopathic dynasty had continued its search for nuclear weapons, as the Iraq Survey Group concluded it would have. But the real reason why going to war would have been the right decision is that if we had known in 2003 that the occupation would lose us the war, if we had known the decisions to disband the Iraqi army and police were wrong, as were the choices to try to maintain an occupation force that was roughly one-quarter the size projected to be needed, to prioritize elections over security and to centralize authority in Baghdad, if we had known the consequences of these mistakes, then we would not have made them in the first place.

Oh yes, there is a failing answer, too, one that has been given several times over. This answer is the charge that what we know now is that George W. Bush’s team was lying about its motives for going into Iraq, about its claims that Saddam Hussein had retained chemical weapons it had not disclosed to the United Nations, and about the necessity of regime change owing to Hussein’s continued pursuit of biological and nuclear weapons. Even if these charges are true — and there is a case to be made that some of these charges, though faithfully and frequently repeated, may themselves be lies — they don’t answer the question of whether regime change was the right goal and whether war was the right method to achieve that goal. Believing this answer absolves us of doing some hard analysis. All we have to do, we are told, is to avoid deceit — good advice, as a general matter, but probably insufficient as a prescription for U.S. strategic doctrine.

Of course, there are other answers. It might well be argued that the decision to go to Iraq wrongly prioritized anti-proliferation efforts at the expense of counterterrorism and miscalculated the humanitarian costs of removing a genocidal dictatorship, only to have it replaced by sectarian civil war. These three conflicts — the effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the struggle against global networked terrorism, and the campaign for the protection of human rights and humane conditions — compose the wars on terror. Progress in one dimension often worsens conditions in the others; this is the “triage of terror” that is imposed on today’s political leaders. But how many people in the public, or in the media that informs them, are even aware of this triage?

As we have learned in Syria and Libya, we have not learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have no confidence in our ability to win such wars because we don’t quite understand how we lost them. Substituting advice like, “Just don’t get involved in the first place” — the geostrategic equivalent of “Just Say No” — doesn’t take us much beyond the pages of the Foreign Policy website.

A story familiar to opera buffs tells of the young provincial singer who is unexpectedly summoned to perform at La Scala. After his first aria, the audience demands an encore, which the singer is happy to provide. But after several encores and a demand for yet another, the flattered but exhausted singer thanks the crowd but pleads that the opera must continue. “No!” a patron shouts, “You’re going to sing it until you get it right.”


If You Knew Then What You Know Now is republished with permission of Stratfor.