It’s September 2002. The world’s worst and dumbest man is asked a mighty question: do we invade Iraq or don’t we? “Yeeeah, I guess... so,” Donald Trump says to Howard Stern. I unearth the fact now, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion, because Trump did better with his answer than most of our nation’s other big names. He wasn’t enthusiastic nor grimly determined nor equipped with long arguments for why common sense ought to be ignored. Probably he just heard all the noise and figured he’d go along. Better cloddishness than determined and self-conceited error, and such error was perpetrated by a long list of people located far higher up the evolutionary ladder than the debased celebrity-pitchman. Yet our one-man worst and dumbest somehow steered clear.
I did a good deal better than Trump, and a great deal better than Oprah Winfrey, William Kristol, 296 members of the House, and 77 members of the Senate; the senators included our current president and three other presidential nominees-to-be, two of whom would serve as secretary of state. I also excelled Michael Ignatieff, David Remnick, Bill Keller, Leon Wieseltier, Lawrence F. Kaplan, Elie Wiesel, Paul Berman, Joseph Nye, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Thomas Friedman, to use a list of pro-invasion liberals posted on Twitter by the distinguished Nicholas Guyatt of Cambridge University. Reply guys soon added Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait; meanwhile, Kevin Drum outed himself with a typically honest self-assessment on his blog.
I beat them all. Of course, so did Barack Obama, Janeane Garafalo, Neil Gaiman, my brother, and a ding-a-ling I used to know who eventually became a 9/11 truther. Garafalo’s an entertainer, Gaiman’s a fantasy writer, my brother works in business news, and the ding-a-ling was a copy editor at a trade paper specializing in municipal finance. My credentials aren’t so great either. But none of us fell for the guff. In my case certain basic principles asserted themselves, middlebrow principles absorbed from coffee table books and long-ago think pieces. What goes up must come down, wars usually go wrong, nothing’s as easy as you expect, and it’s dumb to plant your forces on the other side of the world in miserable terrain, such as a desert, and on top of a sizable population, such as the 27 million people then living in Iraq. Plus, to deal from the other deck of conventional truths, you can’t assume people will see you the way you see yourself; and when their security’s involved, you have no right to think they’ll take your word for your motives. Hence hold back from grabbing one of the world’s great supplies of oil, a supply located within striking distance of other giant supplies of oil. If you do make your move, don’t be surprised if France and everyone else gets upset.
Being against the Iraq War struck me as a centrist issue, since my objections were so simple and normal. Whatever you feel about our big matters of national destiny, you don’t drive the national car into a wall. Such was my core belief, a humble one. After a few months of blogs and newspapers, I decided that Bush’s people were looking past Iraq to a series of similar raids meant to knock down nearby regimes. (If they were, they had to stop around then because of Iraq’s tailspin.) But that belief was in addition. First and always, the following: grandiose foreign adventure means quagmire occupation, and nobody wants that, remember Vietnam. Just this was enough to put me on the right side of history.
Obama’s a sharp man, as is Neil Gaiman, and the trade paper ding-a-ling was a devoted left-wing conspiratorialist; his trajectory took him far into nuttiness, but along the way he twigged the nuttiness of the Bush team regarding Iraq. As to Garafalo, my brother, and myself, there’s no explanation. My brother’s a journalist and student of the news, but no more than the suckers listed above. Garafalo’s no smarter than Oprah, and I’m just someone who read a book review of The March of Folly and sort of remembered it. I’d come late to the war debate but in time for the dirty dossier, when Tony Blair’s government released some of the grim data that had shown them Saddam needed to be stopped. The intelligence turned out to be scrapings from readily available Internet sources, notably a graduate student’s thesis. “It just shows how they don’t have anything,” the ding-a-ling said to me. I thought he was 100 percent right, and so he was.
A few months later he’d be hyperventilating about an ad placed in The Wall Street Journal. “‘Mr. President, give us back our party and our country,’” he read impressively; or words to that effect. A list of signatories declared themselves stalwarts of the Republican Party and American business, and they said enough to the Bush regime and its power-mad flailing. The ding-a-ling felt that here was the onset of a prairie fire, one spotted by himself. You know it wasn’t, of course. I googled some of the names and one guy owned a bicycle shop; they were all like that. A few months more and the ding-a-ling had started with 9/11 being an inside job.
Even so, he didn’t buy the big WMD menace. Neither did I, neither did Janeane Garafalo, and Trump was at least dubious. Really, seeing what was up didn’t take much. If I could, I’d show Bill Keller that review of The March of Folly. But it’s too late now.