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by William H. Benson

March 19, 2009

     On March 19, 2003 at 9:30 p.m. est, two hours past the deadline for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to resign, U.S. and British forces began a concerted air strike against Hussein’s government. A ground campaign followed, and by April 9, allied forces had control of Baghdad, and Saddam Hussein had gone into hiding.

     On May 1, President George W. Bush announced the end of major military operations in Iraq, stating “Mission Accomplished!” However, a peacekeeping force remained in place to subdue the insurgents. On December 13, 2003, U.S. forces found Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground. He was brought to trial, convicted, and eventually executed for his mass slaughter of the Kurds, a decade before.

     In selling the idea of a war against a destitute third world Middle Eastern country that most Americans knew little about, both the President and Vice President used words and language based more on wishful thinking than reality.

     In September of 2002, Dick Cheney tried to persuade Dick Armey, the Republican House majority leader, saying, “We have great information. They’re going to welcome us. It’ll be like the American army going through the streets of Paris. They’re sitting there ready to form a new government. The people will be so happy with their freedoms that we’ll probably back ourselves out there within a month or two.”

     In late 2002, George W. Bush described Saddam Hussein as “a man who would likely team up with Al Qaeda. . . .This is a man who told the world he wouldn’t have weapons of mass destruction, promised he wouldn’t have them. He’s got them!”

     In a recent book entitled Dead Certain, the author Robert Draper, wrote, “Bush wasn’t relying on intelligence to buttress his claims of Saddam’s dark fantasies of plotting attacks on America with Al Qaeda, or direct contact with Al Qaeda. For no such intelligence existed.” And the thin intelligence that claimed Hussein owned weapons of mass destruction was proven incorrect.

     Judgment, especially judgment in the political arena, is a rare quality. A columnist Michael Ignatieff recently wrote: “I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with learning when to admit your mistakes.” That means loosening your attachment to an idea that may be novel, curious, or even interesting but is patently false and will prove catastrophic.

     There are any number of ideas about a given issue, but only a few of them are true and applicable to human life, embedded in reality. It is those few ideas that can be trusted, and upon them decisions can be made. “Fail again; but fail better.”

     Ignatieff also wrote, “Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself.” That means listening closely to those internal warning bells ringing inside when being led toward a decision. The difficulty though is that in certain people who have lived charmed lives, warning bells do not ever sound.  

     Ignatieff suggested that a wise political leader must avoid staying in his or her cocoon of imaginings, but instead must confront the world every day, deciding who to trust, who to believe, and who to avoid. “Prudent leaders force themselves to listen equally to advocates and opponents of the course of action they are thinking of pursuing.” He or she must challenge all fixed ideas.

     There were some thinkers and writers in the early days of 2003 who showed good judgment on Iraq and predicted quite accurately the dire consequences that actually unfolded there. These people did not have more knowledge than those working in the White House, or even access to better intelligence.

     What they had was outright skepticism and a recognition of the limits of American power and authority. “They didn’t suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror.” “They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country.”

     Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first secretary of the Treasury, was extremely skeptical of the war, when he said that the U.S. was “grabbing a python by the tail, by dropping a hundred thousand troops into the middle of twenty-four million Iraqis and an Arab world of one billion Muslims. Trust me, they haven’t thought this through.”