The off-duty, undercover cop who watched while members of a bike gang hauled the driver out of an SUV on New York’s West Side Highway last year and beat him was asked why he did nothing. His response: “If I knew what was going to happen, I would not have gotten out of bed”.
The question currently being asked of candidates – knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003? – does little to reveal the judgment, temperament or character of the one being asked. It serves no purpose, other than to fill the questioner with supercilious indignation, and to make the interrogate, no matter the response, look foolish.
The current uproar began when Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Jeb Bush, “knowing what we now know,” would he have authorized the invasion of Iraq? Governor Bush answered what he thought was the question, but ignored the hypothetical introductory phrase. From a political perspective, it was a mistake on Mr. Bush’s part, but it was the question that was absurd. How does one answer such a hypothetical question? Ms. Kelly was surely trying to trap Jeb Bush and, unfortunately for him, she succeeded. But did her audience learn anything of importance? Was it newsworthy, or did she and the question become the news? On Sunday evening, Chris Wallace asked the same question of Senator Marco Rubio. When Mr. Rubio pushed back, Mr. Wallace became exasperated; so the Senator gave the answer Mr. Wallace wanted. The audience learned nothing, other than that Chris Wallace, whom I generally admire, can be an ass.
We cannot relive the past. It is gone. We must live with its consequences. Time changes our perception of events, as much as does the discovery of new information. The repetition of a favored narrative makes it even more difficult to reconstruct yesteryear with any accuracy. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is widely seen today as a monumental blunder, and the Left is not shy about saying so; neither is much of the Right. The invasion, so goes the story, was engineered by neo-cons in the Bush Administration. Their only wish was to engage in military action; so they conceived the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and pressured the intelligence services and Congress to go along. In other words, we are asked to believe that a few evil guys in the Bush Administration duped a naïve Congress and intelligence service.
It’s what my grandfather would have called “poppycock.” What revisionists conveniently forget is that the invasion was not only about WMDs. Congress had supported 23 writs for Saddam Hussein’s removal. Regime change in Iraq had been fundamental to Iraqi foreign policy from the Clinton years. He had used chemical weapons against the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. He had broken the 1991 ceasefire agreement. He had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons and was working toward developing nuclear capability. While the attack on 9/11 (the seminal event in the Bush Presidency) was carried out by al Qaeda, there were (and are) many other Islamic terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestine Liberation Front, the Islamic Jihad Group and ISIS (to name a few). Saddam Hussein was a supporter of such groups. Over a 20-year period, he had murdered at least 100,000 of his own people.
The Middle East is a tinderbox, much as the Balkans had been in 1914. For decades, the hatred between sects lay dormant, as it had been muzzled by tyrannical governments. Leaders in the Arab world kept a lid on dissension and freedom. George W. Bush believed, perhaps naively like Woodrow Wilson, that democracy was the answer. Mr. Wilson was an idealist, and I suspect Mr. Bush is too. It took two devastating wars and many years, but eventually democracy came to most of Europe. In time, one hopes democracy will come to the Middle East. If Mr. Bush and Mr. Wilson were guilty, it is because they underrated the roots and intensity of sectarian animus – religious and racial hatred that goes back generations.
On October 11, 2002, 70% of Congress authorized President Bush to use military force against Iraq. This was not a quick decision. More than a year had passed since the attack on 9/11. Nevertheless, reasonable people can disagree as to whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but any debate should be based on facts, not innuendos, or the re-writing of history. “Gotcha” questions serve only to “put a smile on the face of the tiger” that is asking the question.
In my opinion, it was not the invasion that was wrong; it was the mishandling of subsequent events. There was obviously little or no pre-planning as to how to work with an Iraq devoid of a leader that had been there twenty years. The “surge,” engineered by President Bush and General David Petraeus was successful, but it came three years late. Nevertheless it worked. Predictably, its success was wasted when the Obama Administration withdrew troops too quickly in 2011.
There are legitimate questions that the media should be asking regarding the Middle East and other hot spots. Where do the candidates stand in terms of defense? What do they see as the role of the U.S.? What path should the U.S. follow in a Middle East descending into chaos? What should we do about China’s growing military? What about North Korea? Where is the “red line” Putin must not cross, as he attempts to reassemble the Russian Empire? Where does the candidate stand in regard to our allies, specifically Israel, the Baltic States, Japan and those in East Asia?
While we learn from history, it cannot (and should not) be altered to fit an agenda. Every experience effects how we respond to the next. In terms of Megyn Kelly’s question, one could as well ask every divorced person, everyone who has been in an accident – knowing what you know now, would you have married, would you have stayed home? Other than to raise her profile, consume oceans of ink and hours of air time, her question provided no revelations.
We live in dangerous times. When we allow 30-second sound-bites, twitter-feeds, slogans and hash-tags to be the source of our news, we are ill-informed. When we let newscasters with ulterior motives frame questions that do not allow insights into the minds, temperament and characters of those who would run our country, we become losers. Asking “what if” questions do not enlighten audiences. In the instance at the start of this essay, Megyn Kelly became as much the news as did Jeb Bush. Media and television revel in “stars.” They drive ratings; so we must live with them, but people should understand that the consequence of such newscasters – and there are more on the Left than on the Right – is a biased and ignorant consumer.
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.
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