Was I wrong to support the war in Iraq? Several conservatives and neoconservatives have begun to renounce the decision to topple Saddam Hussein three years ago. William F. Buckley Jr., as close to a conservative icon as America has, recently wrote that "one can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed." George F. Will has been a moderate skeptic throughout. Neoconservative scholar Francis Fukuyama has just produced a book renouncing his previous support. The specter of Iraq teetering closer to civil war and disintegration has forced a reckoning.
In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors. The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an overestimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. When doubts were raised, they were far too swiftly dismissed. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed.
Fukuyama's sharpest insight here is how the miraculously peaceful end of the cold war lulled many of us into overconfidence about the inevitability of democratic change, and its ease. We got cocky. We should have known better. The second error was narcissism. America's power blinded many of us to the resentments that hegemony always provokes. Those resentments are often as deep among our global friends as among our enemies--and make alliances as hard as they are important. That is not to say we should never act unilaterally. Sometimes the right thing to do will spawn backlash, and we should do it anyway. But that makes it all the more imperative that when we do go out on a limb, we get things right. In those instances, we need to make our margin of error as small as humanly possible. Too many in the Bush Administration, alas, did the opposite. They sent far too few troops, were reckless in postinvasion planning and turned a deaf ear to constructive criticism, even from within their own ranks. Their abdication of the moral high ground, by allowing the abuse and torture of military detainees, is repellent. Their incompetence and misjudgments might be forgiven. Their arrogance and obstinacy remain inexcusable.
The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. There is a large discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism of government's ability to change culture at home and its naiveté when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian cultures abroad.