WASHINGTON -- The 10th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq seems an appropriate time to look back at how it all happened and what it has wrought, not so much for Iraq as for the United States, which poured its own troops, treasure and world reputation into that colossal misadventure.
American combat forces have finally been withdrawn, but with a continuing U.S. hand-holding of a propped-up and shaky regime in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein is dead but outbursts of deadly violence continue as the war in Afghanistan, from which the Iraq invasion was a costly diversion, drags on.
If the war itself was a calamity, so was the general performance of the American press in swallowing the Bush administration's justifications for the invasion and its wishful thinking on how our forces would be welcomed as liberators. The case was best made in Frank Rich's later book, "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," but with few mea culpas from prominent commentators who bought the administration frenzied pitch -- hook, line and sinker.
Permit me to say I told you so. From the day in late April 2002 when Bush legal apologist John Yoo told a Senate subcommitee that President Bush could take the country to war on his own under his constitutional power as commander in chief, I raised a caution flag in this column.
I wrote then that "this is an issue that cries out for further exploration now, before the president confronts Congress with a fait accompli in an unauthorized attack on Iraq of indeterminate ramifications." And a week later, about ignoring the War Powers Act: "This issue, which goes to the heart of constitutional government, warrants further discussion here, and will get it."
In subsequent columns in 2002 and early 2003, I questioned the rush to war. In June 2002, I argued that "the concept of hot pre-emption by a democracy whose laws require at least advance consultation with the legislative branch on the use of force merits a thorough airing before Congress now."
In September, six months before the invasion, I noted that U.N. members continued to ask: "Why now? The specter of nuclear weapons in Baghdad or environs doesn't seem to spook them as it does the American president. Unless he does a better job convincing them, he may have to do without that U.N. resolution (sanctioning war) -- which, after all, may be all right with him."
And 10 days later, in reference to Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution that misled Congress on the Vietnam War: "If the peril is as direct and imminent as Bush says, he should back up his doomsday fears by providing concrete intelligence to congressional leaders. Otherwise, he should encounter resistance in his call for the kind of blank check Congress gave LBJ nearly 40 years ago, and later regretted it. But don't bet on it."
In January 20002, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his flawed pitch for the invasion in what he later called "a blot" on his record, I noted that he also "warned that if the United Nations is going to be relevant, it has to take a stand." I added: "There can be no better way for the United Nations to prove its relevancy than to stop the Bush runaway war-making train in its tracks."
Once the invasion started, I felt compelled to ask: "What is being urgently pre-empted in the absence of an imminent threat?" And later: "If (the absence of WMDs) reveals any intentional misrepresentation by the (administration) the whole concept of 'anticipatory self-defense' and pre-emptive war will be undermined, and should be."
And so it went. There were, to be sure, other voices sounding the alarm, but not enough to change public opinion until years later. Accordingly, the performance of the American press in dealing with the whole fiasco has generally been condemned as one of its most disappointing of the post Cold War era.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)