The war in Iraq was lost even before it began, for one important reason: the Bush Administration did not consider it important to earn the trust and support of the public. In the lead-up to the fighting in Iraq, the Bush Administration did not tell the American people the truth about why we were invading Iraq, or what would be the expected costs and consequences that would result from that action. Instead, they relied on hype and created myths to justify the war.
In this context, it is important to recall all of the myths the Administration developed to sell the war – and not just the fudged intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and the supposed connection to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In speeches and debates, advocates for the war downplayed its costs and consequences. We were told it would be quick and relatively painless: a massive show "shock and awe" followed by a few weeks of fighting and maybe a few more months to clean up. One Pentagon official estimated: 90,000 troops, 6 months and a few billion dollars – Iraqi oil revenue funding the reconstruction effort.
After victories in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and the war in the Balkans 1996-1999, this was the kind of high tech war that Americans had come to expect, with limited U.S. casualties and minimal "collateral damage."
At the same time we were told that U.S. forces would overthrow the dictator and his hated regime, be greeted as liberators (in an image designed to invoke images from World War II), and preside as midwife to the birth of a fledgling democracy that could serve as a "beacon for the entire Middle East."
Our early polling, at Zogby International, showed how important these myths were for U.S. public support. If the mythic scenarios became the actual trajectory of the war, the American people would support it. But when asked projective questions that supposed alternative scenarios playing out, support dropped precipitously. Substantial majorities said they would be unlikely to support the war if it turned out to last more than one year, take more than 1,000 American lives or 10,000 Iraqi lives.
But since most Americans were unprepared for these outcomes, they supported the Administration’s march to war.
My wife and I were living and teaching in North Carolina when the war began, and were struck by the terrible disconnect between the public perceptions of the conflict that was beginning, and its reality. Because North Carolina is home to a number of military bases, the evening news was filled with interviews of family members of those young men and women who were being shipped out to Iraq. Mothers expressed their pride in the sons and daughters whom they believed were "fighting to protect our freedom," or "defeating those who attacked us," or "bringing freedom to the Iraqi people."
For most North Carolinians, those with no personal connection to the war, it was business as usual. One night we decided to go to the movies to see Michael Caine in The Quiet American, a provocative adaptation of Graham Greene’s morality tale about the horror of the Vietnam War. It bore disturbing parallels to the unfolding disaster in Iraq. To our dismay, we were the only people in the theater. Emerging from the darkened theater, I don’t know what troubled me more: what we had just viewed on the screen, or the scene in the shopping mall where the theater was located as thousands of carefree shoppers were living life as usual while the war exploding thousands of miles away.
The myth-making continued. A group of U.S. servicemen took down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, but staged the event in front of a small gathering of cheering Iraqis. Then Bush, in a flight jacket, landed on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations before an enormous banner stating "Mission Accomplished." For a time, public support for the war remained strong.
But then reality hit, and the myths began to unravel: no weapons of mass destruction were found, bringing pre-war intelligence claims into question. The war continued and casualties mounted. An insurgency took hold in Iraq. Polling of Iraqis showed discontent with what they termed "occupation" as lawlessness and insecurity ran rife in Baghdad.
The White House and Pentagon began to work overtime to construct new rationales and myths to shore up flagging public support. The insurgents were termed "dead enders" and "remnants of the old regime," or "foreign terrorists – and we were promised that their days were numbered. The Pentagon ordered that no coffins of American dead be shown, and Iraqi hospitals were forbidden to issue casualty reports.
As the war grew more intense, new tactics were tried. "Political progress" in the form of a series of referenda and elections were presented as evidence of victory. And in speeches, the President and his surrogates upped the rhetorical ante. "We are fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here," "these were the same people who attacked us on 9-11," and the insurgents, terrorists and competing militias in Iraq were lumped together with al-Qa’ida and Iran into an international movement seeking world conquest and the establishment of the "Caliphate" – reminiscent of the Cold War rhetoric warning of the global communist threat.
Despite these efforts, however, the realities of the war have persisted and taken a toll on public opinion. Our early polling has been validated. It has gone on too long, not gone well, and taken too many lives. The myths have been shattered, and the public has stopped believing.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." And it was me who added, "beware of a voter scorned."
The dangers here are many, and should have been foreseen. Some of us opposed this war before it began, and we did so because we knew that we were not being told the truth about its costs and consequences. When I met with some of our nation’s military leaders in 2005, I warned of the ticking time bomb of public opinion that would explode and pull the plug of support for the war.
All this being said, some realties must be addressed. Despite the damage done, we must heed Senator Barack Obama’s warning not to be as careless in leaving Iraq as we were in entering. We have obligations to regional security, our allies and friends in the Middle East, and to the Iraqi people to help prepare the ground for a regional political solution that will provide a modicum of stability in Iraq. We cannot now slip into isolationism when so much needs to be done to rebuild trust and confidence with allies and friends who deserve our support.
It’s a tall order, to clean up this mess that’s been left in Iraq and the broader region. The way to start is learning the lesson of this war: tell the truth to the American people.