The latest craze in the presidential campaign is to ask the contenders (on the Republican side) whether they would have invaded Iraq if you knew what you know now. The answer is supposed to be obvious. Jeb Bush got himself into some trouble by answering the more important question, which is where the errors were made and how he would have corrected them. He is now backpedaling on the unforgivable error of having given too sophisticated an answer.
None of the other Republican contenders is falling into the trap—all are saying that of course they would not have gone into Iraq. No one in the media seems to get the inanity of the question; neither presidents nor any other ordinary mortal has the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, and trying to judge a candidate’s qualities on the assumption that they do misses the real skill you want in a president: the ability to make sound judgments based on the facts at the time.
Consider real life. You get up, get in the car, drive to work, and have a fender bender along the way. Knowing what you know now, would you have gone to work that day? Or consider an investment professional who rigorously analyzes a trade, finds it likely to pay off, and makes the investment only to find it a loser. Knowing what he or she knows now, should the trade have been made? The simplistic answer is no; the mature, grown-up answer is yes. Because we only have the information available at the time, we have to make our best judgment. The danger in second-guessing based on 20-20 hindsight is paralysis based on fear. Maybe I shouldn’t go to work today because I might have a fender bender, or maybe I shouldn’t ever make an investment because it might go wrong. Let us never forget that France and Britain stood paralyzed in the face of Hitler’s aggression because they feared a rerun of World War I.
The other reason the knowing what you know now question is irrelevant is that it ignores the alternative. Since Iraq is discomfiting for Republicans, consider some tough questions for Democrats. Knowing what you know now about how badly it was implemented, would you have had the House pass the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act that was stapled together at two in the morning the day before Christmas recess without going to a conference committee to make it more functional? Or, knowing what we know now, would Secretary Clinton have handed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov a gift-wrapped Reset Button to celebrate a new era in Russian-American relations?
A loyal Democrat would answer yes to both questions. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, failing to pass it that way would have meant endless delays as the Democrats no longer had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and millions of Americans would have been denied coverage. And of course, the alternative to a reset with Russia would have meant continuing the policies of the Bush administration. One can agree or disagree with the tradeoff, but no decision is ever made in isolation, so knowing what you know now also requires an educated guess on what would have happened if the alternative path had been chosen.
Now consider what the alternative of not invading Iraq would have meant. The United Nations had passed 17 Security Council resolutions that Saddam Hussein had violated. The last resolution passed unanimously and gave the United States and its allies a mandate to surround Iraq with 150,000 troops to pressure Saddam to comply. Knowing what you know now, would you have just left those troops there to roast in the desert as summer rolled in? For how many years? And, knowing what you know now—that U.S. troops did find 400 Borak rockets and stockpiles of Sarin nerve agent in 2005 and 2006, along with other finds in the decade of occupation—would you have just left them with Saddam? Note that these were never found by Hans Blix and the U.N. in their search; it only happened with U.S. troops on the ground.
Would you have left a war criminal who tortured his own people in power? And would you have demonstrated to the world that the United Nations is a totally worthless body whose unanimous Security Council resolutions can be ignored with impunity? Stated that way, the decision to invade Iraq was far from obviously a bad one, and I say this knowing what we know now (and I happened to believe then), that the administration was underestimating the likely cost of the decision it made.