March 23rd, 2023

This week marked twenty years since the start of the Iraq War, a conflict that continues to haunt the world. The war, which was launched by the United States and its allies on March 20, 2003, was sold to the public as a necessary response to the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that were in the hands of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, an evil dictator straight out of central casting who had already tangled with the West in the Gulf War of 1991.

In the leadup to the conflict, the US administration under President George W. Bush went to great lengths to present intelligence which suggested that Iraq was developing and stockpiling WMDs, which could potentially be used against Western nations.

The invasion of Iraq was supported by a coalition of countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland, but the decision to go to war was highly controversial even then, with many people questioning the validity of the intelligence and the legitimacy of the war itself.

Two decades later, the Iraq War’s illegitimacy is widely acknowledged, even by those who supported it outright. Saddam Hussein had neither chemical nor biological weapons, nor did he have the “yellowcake” uranium ore that the US administration claimed he had bought in Africa to create nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the war’s dreadful legacy is still felt today. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and the lives of countless others were destroyed by the conflict itself, or by ISIS and local Shiite terrorism, both of which were byproducts of the ill-conceived war. The political and social landscape of the Middle East changed forever, with one unforeseen outcome being the ascendancy of Iran in the region, and in particular its singular determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

The question that troubled analysts and experts in the aftermath of the war – a question that has reemerged to coincide with this anniversary – is whether President Bush and his colleagues at the highest level knowingly misled the American people and the international community in the lead-up to the war, or whether they bumbled into the war because they believed faulty intelligence and thought that regime change in Iraq was the only solution.

Shockingly, the group of politicians involved in enabling the war even includes the current US president, Joe Biden, who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the leadup to the conflict. As early as August 2002, Scott Ritter, who served as the U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 until 1998, asserted that Biden’s hearings on Iraq were a “sham” and failed to facilitate an unbiased discussion as mandated by the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to oversee executive policy.

Veteran political analyst, David Corn, is unequivocal – Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz, together with their teams of experts and support staff, were all aware that the evidence of Iraqi WMDs was a disreputable combination of bait-and-switch and smoke-and-mirrors.

And yet, says Corn, despite this, Bush and his top aides eagerly embraced the faulty evaluations, oversold them to the public, and issued overwrought statements about the supposed threat from Iraq, which leads Corn to conclude that Bush and his aides lied to the public to justify the war.

Assuming Corn’s thesis is correct, the only question that remains is whether Bush et al thought they were doing the right thing, even if how they were doing it was wrong. I would like to believe that the answer is yes, they thought they were doing the right thing – because I am not willing to believe that these were evil people hellbent on going to war to ruin lives and end lives, including the lives of US servicemen and women, and that their lies were a foil for malevolent intentions.

The fact is, good people do bad things, and often they do bad things for what they consider to be good reasons. This week I heard a quote from the notorious Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi: “I have done many nonethical things, all of them for ethical reasons.” Whether that was true for him is certainly debatable, but it is undoubtedly true of others.

The Jewish faith includes a system which acknowledges that humans do wrong even while thinking they are doing right. Rooted in the ancient laws of Temple offerings, this system is aimed specifically at those who have fallen into sin without realizing that what they were doing was sinful until later. “Korban Chatat” is a Hebrew term first found in Parshat Vayikra that refers to a type of offering brought in ancient times, when there was a central Jewish temple, to atone for a class of unintentional sin known as “shogeg”. This term refers to an action that was done by someone who knew it to be wrong, or should have known it was wrong, but did not know that they were doing something wrong when they did it. In other words, at some level they acted unintentionally, but even so, the act was not unavoidable.

A key component of the “Korban Chatat” process is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Without this “vidui” the temple offering is worthless. Human nature is such that we always try to find justifications for actions that are wrong. Then, at some point, we are forced to face up to the fact that we messed up.

Acknowledging that we could have done better, and that we should have done better, goes a long way towards squaring the circle. In Judaism, it is the only pathway back to God. Saying that we acted “in good faith” is simply not good enough. After all, a “shogeg” is not a total accident – which means that brushing it under the carpet only adds insult to injury.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where acknowledging wrongdoing, even unintentional wrongdoing, is not in vogue, and certainly not if there are political or reputational considerations at stake. But two decades after the Iraq War debacle began, and now that it has become crystal clear that the march to war was not merely an innocent miscalculation, but rather a miscalculation based on known falsehoods and lies – however well-intentioned that miscalculation may have been, it would be refreshing to hear some kind of acknowledgement from the main protagonists that they could have done better, and should have done better, and that what they did was wrong, period.

Although, truth be told, I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for such an acknowledgement to come. Nevertheless, it needs to be said – which is why I have said it.

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