No I-Told-You-Sos

An Iraqi army soldier races atop a destroyed home on the outskirts of Ramadi on Jan. 18 in Iraq's Anbar province.
An Iraqi army soldier races atop a destroyed home on the outskirts of Ramadi on Jan. 18 in Iraq's Anbar province. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sweet vindication. Who wouldn't want it? To be right. To be free of criticism and upheld by evidence, by actual proof, that one's predictions about a controversial war were correct.

It is the culture of this town -- trafficking in rightness. People clamor day in and day out, in that polished and politic way of the Washingtonian, to be proved right.

But on Iraq, the vindicated are pained. There is no gloating -- not with thousands of people dead, Americans and Iraqis; not with the Iraq war precipitating an ongoing foreign policy crisis that has left the United States' global image in tatters.

For people who were pilloried, penalized or warned to be careful because of their opposition to a powerful president's war, vindication is nothing to celebrate. It is a victory most bitter.

"Emotionally, it's a very traumatic and unhappy outcome." That is retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, head of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan. "How can you be happy about being right about the disaster that's been created?"

It weighs on him.

"Vindication is not pleasing," he says. "Even some of my friends have noted: the more vindicated I've been, the more irritable I become."

Back before the war even began, Odom said its aims were wrong. He criticized the doctrine of preemption, said al-Qaeda had nothing to do with Iraq and predicted that democracy could scarcely take hold there. A year after the war began, he was quoted calling it a failure -- and heard soon thereafter that he'd been dubbed a Benedict Arnold for his views. To dissent, back then, was risky. Not like now, when the conventional wisdom about the conflict has made a U-turn in a political climate where anger over the war toppled the majority party in Congress. The president sounded almost plaintive in his State of the Union address, saying, "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in."

Lots of people predicted things would turn out this way. They are military brass and lawmakers and foreign policy intellectuals, the kind of wise ones whose counsel is routinely sought and respected. In the run-up to this war, their concerns carried no weight against a swelling of patriotism, a backdrop of fear and an administration determined to oust Saddam Hussein. Their warnings that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11 were ignored. Worse, some were shunned and scolded.

As president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jessica Tuchman Matthews, raised hard prewar questions about the looming Iraq engagement. They predicted Iraq would become a long occupation and recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and would damage U.S. relations with the Muslim world. And: No weapons of mass destruction would be found.

One day back then, one of Matthews's colleagues ran into an acquaintance on the street, and that acquaintance warned: " 'What is your boss doing? Nobody at Carnegie is ever going to get through another Senate confirmation.' " And Matthews was herself admonished by a colleague at another think tank, who told her: "You're going to make Carnegie irrelevant. The war's going to happen and you ought to have Carnegie working on the after-war rather than on 'we shouldn't go to war.' "

Amid what she calls the "seemingly inexorable roll" toward war, the clear message was "you better get on the bandwagon or you'll never be taken seriously in this town again."

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