Iraq wasn’t a just mistake; it was a distortion of facts

Of course it was a mistake. It’s the gentlest among many applicable words, but that simple question about invading Iraq flummoxes every Republican presidential candidate. Even with different framing, “knowing what we know now” versus the less hypothetical “was it a mistake,” they resort to nervous babbling. For obvious reasons.

It’s not as if I don’t understand prospective uncertainty. Thinking a patient of mine had appendicitis, for example, I’ve taken out some normal ones; and no matter what the preoperative evidence, it always made me feel bad. But having considered all possibilities, having done appropriate tests and interpreted them correctly, I’ve not felt that my decision was a mistake. (In the days before more accurate imaging, we were taught that if we didn’t have a 15 percent normal appendix rate, we weren’t operating enough, risking perforation.) Bad outcomes don’t always imply poor judgment or sloppy technique. In fact, a decision to operate is always one of glorified odds playing; individuals react unpredictably. Taking another’s life in my hands was never something I took lightly; I owed patients nothing less than gathering all relevant data, considering it honestly, with only the patients’ best interest in mind. Still, the possibility of complications was always present, and factored into every decision I made.

So, yes, I understand gray areas and the impossibility of perfection. Which means I understand that in every way, on every level, in real time and in hindsight, the Iraq invasion was a monumental blunder. Unlike the complications with which I dealt in my career, there may be no healing from it.

When Sen. Marco Rubio said, in response to what passes for tough questioning on Fox “news,” that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, he wasn’t asked to elaborate. Given the unending chaos in the region that has resulted, and Fox’s complicit pre-invasion cheerleading, it’s unsurprising. But that’s not the most central point. The real point is that even if he ceded presidential decisions to Dick Cheney, George Bush must have known the reasons he gave to justify the invasion were questionable. Because they’d been questioned! Mobile weapons labs. Yellowcake. Aluminum tubes. Reconstituted nuclear weapons program. Actual WMD. To every one of his claims there were coetaneous counterclaims from credible sources. And let’s remember: No matter what might have been believed, inspectors were there, finding nothing. Cheney/Bush dismissed their reports. This wasn’t intelligence “failure.” This was intelligence distortion.

It’s hard to conjure a similar situation; but had I operated when tests were equivocal and experienced doctors had questioned my diagnosis, if I found nothing when I went in and if the patient got sick as hell as a result, I’d have spent the rest of my life in a courtroom. Not to mention in self-recrimination, a phenomenon conspicuously lacking in every one of the war’s original cheerleaders.

Think about it: Every prediction that preceded the invasion turned out to be wrong. Pay for itself. Greeted as liberators. Shiites and Sunni living in perfect harmony. The war will last mere weeks. Democracy will spread like honey on a crumpet. After rightly putting the number of troops required way higher than planners were claiming, Eric Shinseki was fired. Even if those claims were made in good faith, what does it say about Cheney and Bush that they chose such clueless advisers; not to mention the fact that they shut down those who disagreed? Calling the invasion a mistake is far too generous. “What we know now” was known then, but the facts didn’t square with their unstoppable and delusional plan, and were shoved aside. They must have figured the results would be so mission-accomplished flight-suit glorious that we’d excuse their falsehoods (See: Maybe worst of all was the coordinated nonstop mushroom cloud of calculated scare tactics and deliberate divisiveness: You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. This was cynical manipulation in the extreme.

For the next eighteen months we’ll watch a parade of presidential pretenders dance and demur. Except for Sen. Lindsey Graham, who loves war more than (your) life itself. He just announced that to anyone who even thinks of joining ISIS he’ll send in a drone. (See: As to how he plans to read thoughts, and where he’ll entomb the Constitution, we await enlightenment. Having learned nothing, here we go again.

Sid Schwab is a surgeon and Everett resident. His email address is

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