Rod asks which of our previously held beliefs the Iraq war changed.  Initially, I thought that nothing in my views had really changed all that much, but as I reflect on my views five years ago at the start of the war debate I realise that a number of important assumptions that I once held (and some of which I held fairly strongly) were wrong.  The constant in all of these beliefs was unfounded idealism, optimism and confidence in the basic soundness of democratic government.  Anyone who knew me in 2002 would never have mistaken me for an idealist or an optimist, but I retained enough of these foolish habits of mind that the disillusionment that followed was fairly severe.      

On conservatism and American politics:

1)  First among these was my assumption that most Americans who called themselves conservatives distrusted government and feared the expansion of government power.  That was the conservatism I had been raised with, and it seemed to be the one that had a visceral appeal to a large number of conservatives during the ’90s.  Obviously, this conservatism is held by only a fairly small number of conservatives, and, as wiser people than I have known all along, the popularity of a “roll back the state” message is extremely superficial. 

2)  One of my other false beliefs connected to this was that most conservatives were conservatives first and GOP partisans second (if at all), and would therefore be just as outraged by GOP government activism and overreach as they had been in the 1990s.  This was the worst sort of naivete on my part, and it was repeatedly shown to be false.  To point out that some of the same people who wanted to attack Iraq opposed aggression against Yugoslavia was almost useless–partisans are well aware that they use a double standard, and they have no problem with it.  Again, I mistook the attitudes of conservatives whom I knew for what was true for “conservatives” generally–this was just sloppy analysis. 

3) Another false belief that I held was that most conservatives were conservative as a result of custom and reflection, with rather more emphasis on the latter, and to discover that most conservatives were such on the basis of little more than visceral dislike of various hate figures was something that took some time to accept. 

4)  Another mistaken assumption was that most conservatives were likewise wary of government power overseas and that they would therefore be extremely skeptical of foreign adventurism.  It seemed obvious to me that if I and others who took this view simply pointed out the bizarre Wilsonian pretensions of the administration, that would cure them of their enthusiasms.      

5)  Yet another false belief was that most conservatives were not nationalists, when obviously the defining feature of most Americans who call themselves conservatives is that they are, in fact, nationalists.  Had I been reading more Lukacs in my younger days, I would have already known this.

6) One more false belief was that the power of nationalism and hyper-nationalism in America generally was fairly weak.  I’m not sure why I ever thought this was the case.  This was one where I could not have been more wrong.  This was the result of wishful thinking and not much else. 

In each case, I made poor judgements about American politics because I substituted my understanding of conservatism for the conservatism held by tens of millions of people.  I remain convinced that the latter should understand conservatism more as I do, but it has been a long five years learning just how completely far from that most conservatives are.  I imagined that the brief outpouring of nationalism after 9/11 in which most of us were swept up was a passing phase, a fever that would lift quickly and leave few traces.  It had not occurred to me until later that 9/11 tapped into a vast reservoir of nationalism, and even in spite of Iraq nothing seems to be able to suppress it (and, perversely, withdrawal from Iraq may serve as yet another boost to it). 

On democracy and the media:

1) Despite some long-standing dislike for mass democracy, I continued to operate until 2002-03 under the assumption that a deliberative process of informed debate would bar the way to the launching of an entirely unjustified and unprovoked war.  Ha!  In other words, I had the strange idea that arguments and evidence mattered and that public opinion was responsive to reality.  Once again, I was not nearly pessimistic enough, and as certain as I was of the impossibility of spreading democracy in the Near East from the very beginning I remained until then embarrassingly deluded and blind to the profound inadequacies of democratic government.  For some inexplicable reason, probably the result of all those years of conditioning in civics classes, I thought that the transparently weak and false claims put forward by the government would be undone by our adversarial political system and the checks to executive abuse would prevent wanton aggression.  In short, I believed, against all better knowledge and judgement, that the structures of representative government would function to stop an unjust war from happening.  Never mind that this had never happened in the past–for some reason, I thought it was going to work this time.  At the time that the war started, I believed that the people in these structures had failed to do their duty, but as time went on I began to understand that the structures themselves are incapable of preventing executive abuses of power, because all of those structures have subordinated themselves completely to the executive in these matters.  Call it the death of my constitutional optimism. 

2)  I had the totally unfounded, naive, youthful idea that it was the duty of journalists to hold government to account.  They may theoretically have such a duty, but when it comes to questions of war most seemed to think that discretion was the better part of valour.  Perhaps because they were excessively worried that they would be pilloried as fifth columnists and subversives, many journalists who were otherwise not at all sympathetic to what Mr. Bush was trying to do simply rolled over and let a campaign of disinformation against the public succeed (and, what was worse, they became active participants in that campaign). 

Of course, I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I find it a bit humbling that I and other noninterventionists could have perceived the numerous misleading government statements, the likely pitfalls following the invasion, the absurdity of implanting alien political and social norms into an entirely different culture and unknown part of the world and the malign effects of the war on our political institutions, and yet at the same time I could be so mistaken about my countrymen and supposed political confreres.  As someone who opposed any invasion of Iraq from the day the idea was first floated (Jan. 29, 2002), I did not make many of the same mistakes that war supporters did, but I regret them all the same, since my failure to understand the political reality of my own country led me to make arguments in my letters and conversations that were not going to be very persuasive.  Antiwar activists were often effectively arguing past, or rather above, the public.  We were arguing the impracticalities and immorality of such a war; the other side could tap into a visceral desire for revenge and payback, regardless of the target.  War advocates understood the irrationality of democracy (including the crowd-pleasing lie that democracies are naturally peaceful) very well and exploited it for all it was worth.  Antiwar activists have been labouring for years under the delusion that popular attitudes can be affected by having better policy arguments and superior command of knowledge about a region.  Current war supporting pundits have much in common with this approach, since the standard refrain of pro-war commentators is something like, “The American people will never approve of a policy of surrender,” just as some antiwar commentators might effectively claim (as I know I did) that ”the American people will never approve of a policy of aggression.”  I was wrong then in my judgement of the public mood; they are wrong now.  

It occurs to me that the reason why antiwar activists are so strongly attached to the mantra of “Bush lied” (besides the reality that he and his officials did lie on numerous occasions) is that they are attempting to square a nation that embraced a manifestly unjust, unnecessary war with their confidence in the functioning of our system of government.  In this view, if people will so easily embrace such an obviously wrongheaded policy, sane foreign policy will not be possible in a democratic system.  The government’s deceptions (which absolutely did occur) help to bear a lot of this burden, since they allow the majority of people to use the old “he tricked us” excuse to cover up for their own failures.  Absent those failures, however, no deceit would have been sufficient to propel a country entirely against its will into such a war.