No I-Told-You-Sos
Opponents of the Iraq War Voice Pain, Not Vindication, At Predictions They Could Only Hope Would Be Wrong

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."

Instead, she looks like an accurate prognosticator. But, "you can't take any pleasure in having been right," says Matthews, "because this is a catastrophe for the United States and people are dying and didn't have to die, and it's going to take us years and years and years to dig out of this, and it's been a catastrophe for the Iraqi people."

Also repudiated were people who supported the war but diverged from the official administration line. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, was sharply rebuffed in early 2003 for publicly saying that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed to keep the peace in Baghdad.

Now, as President Bush seeks additional troops for Iraq, it is widely agreed that the war was indeed prosecuted with too few troops -- a seeming vindication for Shinseki, though he did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Vindication is a difficult and complex concept and one that has to be considered with many caveats, such as those presented by Zbigniew Brzezinski when asked if he felt vindicated.

"If vindication was accompanied by a sense that America is likely to undo the damage they have done and can dis-embarrass itself of the tragic involvement, then my answer would be yes."

But Brzezinski, former national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, scarcely believes such course corrections will happen.

He opposed Bush's doctrine of preemption and assessed the war policy as one that "was propelled forward by mendacity." He spoke out before and during the war, and he believes his criticisms began to sting as the war began to falter. As a result, he says, he was ultimately shut out of high-level Defense and State Department briefings he had often attended and was publicly upbraided by a foreign policy peer.

Despite the broad sea change in opinion among the political and policy class, Brzezinski's sense of vindication has its limits, he says, because "I have the feeling that the president's team is hellbent on digging itself in more deeply and if it does not succeed in Iraq some of its wilder policymakers seem to be eager to enlarge the scope of the war to Iran."

"I'm saddened," he said, "because I think it's doing terrible harm to America. But more than being sad, which is an emotion, I'm worried."

From Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran? Could this scenario actually play out? It is, among the vindicated, not at all absurd, for official Washington's sights have turned to Iran with "the same signs, a very similar drumbeat" as that which preceded the war in Iraq, says Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Lee saw it coming -- not Iran, but Iraq. Back in September 2001, days after the terror attacks, she saw the broadly worded congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to use force to fight terrorism as giving him a dangerous degree of carte blanche.

That early resolution allowed the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

It is language that haunts her still.

"I said then it was giving the administration a blank check to use in perpetuity," Lee says. "If you read that resolution, it's very clear that it was the beginning of a march to war."

She voted against that resolution -- the only member of Congress to do so -- and then took the barbs.

"It was a very tough period," she says. "To call me unpatriotic was the lowest of the low," especially considering that her father, an Army lieutenant colonel, served for 25 years and saw duty in World War II and Korea.

Now, she says, people are eager to tell her she was right. But "it's not about feeling vindicated," she says.

"I want people to understand that this is a very dangerous foreign policy, the administration's foreign and military policy is very dangerous, that the notion of preemptive war is very dangerous and that we need to support more rational approaches to our foreign and military policy."

Lee, like Odom and many others, is calling for the war to end. They are strange bedfellows -- she, a progressive liberal; he, a usually hawkish conservative.

For months, Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has been pushing a "cut and run" policy. He even wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times in October headlined "How to Cut and Run," in which he wrote, "We must cut and run tactically in order to succeed strategically."

He advocates troop withdrawal coupled with a diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran, with whom the United States actually has common interests, nukes notwithstanding.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, formerly the top U.S. military man in the Middle East, started where Odom started -- in opposition to the war. Zinni argued that going into Iraq would destabilize the region and distract from the fight against al-Qaeda.

For his opposition, he says he was accused by some fellow officers of having political motivations and was disinvited from attending meetings at the Joint Forces Command, where he'd been a regular as a senior mentor for more junior officers.

But he diverges from most early critics of the war, because he now is arguing that withdrawing from Iraq would destabilize the region. Instead, he says, a new strategic framework for the war is needed -- something far broader than the increase Bush has proposed, which Zinni calls a "half-step."

"It's breaking my heart, watching it," he says of the war. "I was praying somehow I'd be wrong, but in my heart of hearts I knew it would happen this way -- the bad decision-making, the insufficient troops."

Congress now is mulling varying resolutions on the war, but Zinni complains that "the debate is wrong. I think Congress is debating the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic."

But the ship, he argues, doesn't have to go down.

As the debate now centers on what can be salvaged from the U.S. engagement in Iraq, a cynical Washington exercise is underway, some of the vindicated say. It's a snake-like shedding of skin, a policy metamorphosis in which people who once were prominent cheerleaders for the war now are cozying up with the war's early opponents and distancing themselves from their earlier roles.

Matthews has seen it and fears it may warp the crucial debates about the way forward in Iraq and toward Iran.

"So many of the people who were wrong have gone on to being very visible pundits without ever admitting how wrong they were," Matthews says.

Brzezinski says there are some people -- and he's talking "outside of the administration, of course" -- who have embraced his positions in the oddest and most disingenuous way.

They say "that they are happy to have associated themselves with these views . . . ," Brzezinski says. "That is the funny part, because you meet people who say, 'Oh, I was with you all along.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company