Commission of the wrong

Why did the Iraq Study Group not include any anti-war voices?

Jason Stahl

>As a historian, I find the mindset that says “We’re not looking back … our entire focus is on what is the best way to move forward” to be pernicious and counterproductive, given that looking to the past can help one to best decide how to move forward. Despite this, the “no looking back” mindset was precisely the one adopted by the Iraq Study Group as they put together their final report – released this week to much fanfare. The above quote is from Charles Robb, a member of the group, and accurately reflects the mindset of its members.

So why did the ISG choose such a counterproductive, ahistorical approach? For an answer to this, one need only look at histories of 10 people who make up the group where you will not find a single voice who spoke out unqualifiedly against the war before its beginning. Yes, it’s true; I did a little research and found out that no member of the commission had the sound judgment to actively oppose the war during the runup to it. Here’s a sample of what I found:

First, the Republican members, most of whom fall into the, “yes, but … ” category. James Baker, the ISG’s Republican cochairman, was prescient in his judgment of possible problems with an invasion, but did not actively oppose it. He said in August 2002, “Although the United States could certainly succeed, we should try out best not to have to go it alone,” also declaring that “the issue for policymakers to resolve is not whether to use military force, but how to go about it.” When a broad coalition had not materialized by the war’s launch, Mr. Baker did not speak out against the war. Similarly, Lawrence Eagleburger, in August 2002, declared, “Unless Saddam has his hand on a trigger for a weapon of mass destruction, and out intelligence is clear, I don’t know why we have to do it now, when our allies are opposed to it.” But later, in 2003, Eagleburger suggested Bush had made the case for war. Alan Simpson, just before the war’s launch, didn’t know what he thought, declaring, “I think there isn’t a single American that isn’t deeply troubled about all this, deeply troubled. We don’t know what we think. One day we’re – we’re let’s go, let’s get the bozo out of here. The next time we think, wait a minute, let them do some more inspecting.” However, he did know Saddam was “cooking a chemical cocktail, he’s been doing it for 12 years, and I happen to see him personally and know that.”

Similarly, the Democrats on the committee fell into the same “yes, but … ” category. Lee Hamilton, the ISG’s Democratic co-chairman wrote about many possible drawbacks to the war, but ultimately concluded in February 2003 that, “Addressing these challenges is not an argument against war; it is a matter of preparing ourselves and our allies for the risks of war and its aftermath, while acknowledging the immensity of the task.” Leon Panetta came closest to opposing the conflict, but still left an opening when he declared in August 2002, “It’s not to say that a case cannot be made (for invasion), but they certainly haven’t made it.” Finally, to this day, ISG member Charles Robb refuses to give his opinion on whether or not the war should have been launched. For all other committee members not named, I could not find any public statements given by them in the run-up to the war.

Given this personal history, it is not surprising that the commission would want to ignore the past in order to avoid embarrassment. But there is also something besides self-interest at play in the ISG’s decision to take an ahistorical approach. It also reflects a culture of “compromise” now paralyzing Washington, D.C. This so-called compromise culture insists that those who got it right from the beginning will make it too hard to come to a consensus, because they are the ones who are now pushing most vocally for a withdrawal. The irony of this is two-fold. First, it allows official Washington to ignore the fact that a majority of Americans want withdrawal. And second, it ignores that this same compromise culture is what got us into Iraq in the first place. It is a classic example of repeating the mistakes of the past as we continue to hear from those who got it wrong while marginalizing those who got it right. Until this cycle ends, Americans and Iraqis will continue to die for a mistake.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]