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The painful debate over Iraq, which became a bloody quagmire, 20 years later

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One of the toughest stories I’ve ever had to do was on how my employer screwed up coverage of the march to war in Iraq.

Two decades ago, while at the Washington Post, I decided to examine how a newspaper with so much talent essentially enlisted in the Bush administration’s effort to sell the coming invasion. Pronouncements by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and others that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction got huge play, while the relative handful of stories questioning such claims ran deep inside the paper.

“I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder…I think I was part of the groupthink,” Bob Woodward told me.

“Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday,” said Tom Ricks, the military correspondent and author of several books. “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

THE IRAQ WAR 20 YEARS LATER: DELTA FORCE OPERATORS RECALL HUNTING SADDAM HUSSEIN

And I drew this acknowledgment from my ultimate boss, Len Downie, the executive editor.

“We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale,” Downie told me. “Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part…We didn’t pay enough attention to the minority.”

A U.S. Army soldier salutes during the national anthem as soldiers return home from Iraq on August 29, 2009, in Fort Carson, Colorado. The last main body, some 314 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, returned home after a year deployment in Iraq. As American forces complete their deployments, the U.S. presence in Iraq continues to decrease as part of the draw down of American forces after more than 6 years war in Iraq. 

A U.S. Army soldier salutes during the national anthem as soldiers return home from Iraq on August 29, 2009, in Fort Carson, Colorado. The last main body, some 314 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, returned home after a year deployment in Iraq. As American forces complete their deployments, the U.S. presence in Iraq continues to decrease as part of the draw down of American forces after more than 6 years war in Iraq.  (John Moore/Getty Images)

With the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion this week, many are revisiting and relitigating that fateful decision. Saddam had no WMDs, as it turned out, and rather than a “cakewalk,” as defense official Ken Adleman had predicted, American troops were mired in a long and bloody occupation.

“We will in fact be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Cheney said on “Meet the Press.” That was not the case.

Hindsight is always perfect, and I’ve never bought the notion that Bush lied us into war. But he and his Cabinet relied on badly flawed intelligence, which was not, as CIA chief George Tenet said, a “slam dunk.” The “Mission Accomplished” banner on the battleship after the invasion didn’t help.

I LOST MY BROTHER AND MY FIANCÉ IN THE IRAQ WAR. 20 YEARS LATER, HERE’S HOW I HOPE AMERICANS WILL HONOR THEM

And look at the way it changed our politics, given the stance of the next two presidents. Barack Obama said he was opposed to “dumb wars,” meaning Iraq, and Donald Trump said he was opposed to “forever wars,” namely Iraq and Afghanistan.

But nothing I say is as remotely critical as a Wall Street Journal column by Gerry Baker, the paper’s former editor-in-chief and self-described right-wing curmudgeon.

Army General Dan McNeill meets with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. General McNeill was U.S. Commander in Afghanistan from May 2002 until May 2003 and from February 2007 until June 2008. He was in charge of more than 10,000 troops in 2003 and 30,000 in 2008.

Army General Dan McNeill meets with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. General McNeill was U.S. Commander in Afghanistan from May 2002 until May 2003 and from February 2007 until June 2008. He was in charge of more than 10,000 troops in 2003 and 30,000 in 2008. (Reuters)

He calls the Iraq invasion “probably the most flawed decision in American foreign policy since the founding of the republic.”

“The promulgation of the WMD fictions, the Abu Ghraib horrors, the catastrophically inept initial occupation and administration—all undid in a matter of months the post-Cold War authority and heft the U.S. had earned over decades.”

What’s more, there was “incalculable damage to the bonds of trust between Americans and their leaders,” Baker says. That is all too reminiscent of the shattering of trust caused a generation earlier by the Vietnam War, when Americans were lied to about the ever-elusive “light at the end of the tunnel.” 

U.S. Army soldiers take part in the casing ceremony on Aug. 21 for the last American combat brigade to serve in Iraq as a small army of American diplomats is left behind to keeping the volatile country from slipping back to the brink of civil war.

U.S. Army soldiers take part in the casing ceremony on Aug. 21 for the last American combat brigade to serve in Iraq as a small army of American diplomats is left behind to keeping the volatile country from slipping back to the brink of civil war. ((AP))

In perhaps the most stinging paragraph that a British journalist can deliver, Baker writes that “there has been no accountability for the architects of the debacle. The political leaders have mostly moved on, but with Olympic-level chutzpah, many of the so-called intellectuals who advocated it are still out there, lecturing the American people that it’s treasonous to oppose immersing America into other conflicts.”

They should “admit our shameful error or, failing that, take an oath of respectful silence.” 

SUBSCRIBE TO HOWIE’S MEDIA BUZZMETER PODCAST, A RIFF ON THE DAY’S HOTTEST STORIES

Now professional prognosticators are entitled to be wrong. And some of them, along with some news organizations, have long since gone the mea culpa route about Iraq. But many others have simply moved on, or insisted we’re better off because Baghdad is less of a threat.

When I wrote that story back in 2004, national security reporter Dana Priest told me that skeptical stories usually triggered hate mail “questioning your patriotism and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into the hands of the terrorists.”

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This was before the advent of social media. But it has echoes of our corrosive debates today.

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