Five years of Iraq editorials


In five years of war, The Times editorial board has written over 200 editorials discussing Iraq, from its early position against the war, penned on March 14, 2003, to last week’s discussion of global insurgency and the fallout between Adm. William J. Fallon and Gen. David H. Petraeus. This Sunday the board will consider the status of the army as it fights two wars. Below are selections from editorials that appeared at the start of the war, and at every anniversary since.

On the eve of war, The Times editorial board remained persistent in its call for the United Nations to approve action against Iraq, even though it took the liberal hawkish position that Saddam Hussein needed to be disarmed for his tyranny and, The Times believed, his pursuit and possession of weapons of mass destruction. This still put it to the left of all the major papers. Below, we quote at length from that editorial, and its prescient consideration of costs and rising threats from North Korea and Iran.

Friday, March 14, 2003 The Right Way in Iraq In a post- 9/11 world, the president argues, things are different. The nation must protect itself. Yes. So the question becomes, would an invasion of Iraq make the United States and the world safer? If the world community unites to do it, yes. But a U.S.-led invasion, without sanction from the United Nations, would make this nation and the world at large more dangerous.It is well established that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. Among other things, Iraq still has tons of material that can be made into biological weapons like anthrax and into chemical weapons like mustard gas.It clearly is in the world’s interest to disarm this murderous tyrant. The Security Council, riven by both legitimate concerns about the U.S. use of power and its own petty political games played for domestic consumption in France, Germany, Russia and China, must not freeze in a critical moment....But the president’s next step — in effect, “if the U.N. doesn’t do it, right now, the United States will” -- is where he loses us and, we suspect, many other Americans.The Bush administration’s months of attempts to justify quick military action against Iraq have been confusing and unfocused.... The administration tried mightily, and failed, to show a connection between Hussein and the 9/11 perpetrators, Al Qaeda. Had there been real evidence that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, Americans would have lined up in support of retaliation....Opposition to immediate war cuts across religious lines, but it is especially strong among Muslims, some of whom see an attack on Iraq as a renewal of the Christian crusades against Islam. Throughout the Middle East, a postwar occupation of Iraq would become part of the myth of an American empire come to wreak havoc on the Muslims. This refueled resentment would not make the world safer. It would not make the streets at home safer.The cost of war would be high, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. Add on costs to occupy Iraq while rebuilding it and the price tag would be higher still.... As the U.S. places a laser focus on Iraq, other serious challenges await. North Korea is believed to have one or two nuclear bombs and the intention of making more. It exports missiles to other countries.... And recent reports suggest that Iran too is making advances in its nuclear weapons program.All of these problems require a response, and this nation cannot muscle its way out of all of its international disputes.


Six days later, the war had begun. Noticing that “shock and awe” weren’t happening, The Times hoped for a brief conflict with low casualties:

Thursday, March 20, 2003 The Beginnings of WarThe limited early strikes contrasted sharply with what had been expected after Pentagon officers spoke of beginning the war with massive airstrikes designed to “shock and awe” or overwhelm Iraq....The “gee whiz” effect of the most modern armaments should not cloak their result: death and destruction. The targets will be military and government installations; Pentagon planners say they have tried to minimize civilian casualties. But war brings carnage....The common wisdom as the war began was that it would be short and the more difficult phase would be the next one, occupying and rebuilding Iraq. But the generals and admirals rightly warned against being overconfident and underestimating any enemy, and Bush on Wednesday acknowledged that a campaign on the harsh terrain of Iraq, a country as large as California, “could be longer and more difficult than some predict."In the end, for Bush, this war of choice is rooted in 9/11: “We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities."As this nation enters war, we trust that the U.S. and British armed forces will be able to take advantage of their vastly superior training and technology to end the conflict soon with minimal casualties.

Exactly one year later, after the “Mission Accomplished” banner flew, after no weapons of mass destruction were found, and as an insurgency wore on, The Times reflected grimly on how the war had become a rallying point for terrorists:

Saturday, March 20, 2004 A War’s Woeful Results At least the president might score a debatable point in asserting that life in Iraq is far better without Saddam Hussein. But he’s the president of the United States and leader of the free world. So it’s fair to ask whether the war has made life better for this nation and its allies. In our assessment, it has not. Although ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction was the administration’s major selling point for the war, it is now clear that Hussein’s regime no longer possessed those weapons....Hussein’s Iraq played no part in 9/11, even as the administration insisted that the war in Iraq was an inevitable consequence of the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda followers, perpetrators of the assault against the United States, were and still are more likely to be found within the borders of U.S. ally Pakistan than within the borders of Iraq. Islamic radicals were able to portray the war as an imperialist ploy of the U.S. and its reluctant followers, invading Iraq because it was a Muslim nation with a stand-up Hussein as leader. That propaganda, which the Bush administration helped mightily to feed through its hubris and miscalculations, has spawned a new generation of recruits for terror. Those recruits have joined Hussein’s followers to kill U.S. soldiers and Iraqis cooperating with the occupation forces. More than 570 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, along with soldiers from Britain, Spain, Italy and other nations. The war has killed thousands of Iraqis as well. Nations must retaliate for attacks like those on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and expect casualties in war. But the invasion and occupation of Iraq — a nation that did not pose an imminent threat — and the shameful underfunding of homeland security have not lessened U.S. vulnerability. The U.S. grows increasingly isolated from its allies, and that gives comfort and strength to its enemies.

Spring of 2005 brought an occasion for optimism — many Iraqis risked much to vote for a National Assembly in January of that year — but The Times focused on the challenges Iraqis still faced:

Thursday, March 17, 2005 A Brief ‘Bright Moment’ in Iraq The new National Assembly did meet Wednesday, but there was no new president, prime minister, speaker of the Assembly or other Cabinet officer to congratulate. No government formed to make the laws that might move the nation toward normality. It may have been a “bright moment,” as President Bush described it in his Wednesday news conference, but moments are fleeting.After announcements last week that the winning Shiite coalition and second-place Kurds had reached a tentative agreement on naming a Cabinet and forming the new government, the deal fell apart on the disputed point of Kurdish control of the oil city of Kirkuk, among other things....Iraqi politicians now practice the craft on their own, issuing press releases, spinning reporters and sending intermediaries to sound out opponents and potential coalition partners. The parties have more or less decided how to distribute the top jobs, including a plum for Sunnis who boycotted the election. This is complicated politics, far removed from a yelling match in a U.S.-controlled meeting room.Soon, though, the process has to yield more: a government up to the much tougher job of writing a national constitution; a directly elected final government that can persuade or force insurgents off the violent, unstable streets; a way out for U.S. troops, who have lost more than 1,500 of their own in Iraq; and normal lives for Iraqis, whose losses are far greater.

By the following year, Iraq had devolved into violence after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. U.S. casualties were rising and public opinion was turning against the war. The Times bluntly listed the failures of war planners but also chided “revisionist” critics:

Sunday, March 19, 2006 Shock, awe and humility Three years ago today, Iraqis were “shocked and awed” by the power of the U.S. military. Today, Americans are shocked and awed by its limits. If the “cakewalks” of the 1980s and 1990s — Grenada, the Gulf War, Kosovo — restored America’s belief in its omnipotence, so badly shaken in Vietnam, the occupation of Iraq has been a humbling letdown.... Bush’s messianic idealism was never justified, and in any event the administration’s flawed execution would have undermined his purpose. The list of gaffes is by now distressingly familiar: the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, the lack of sufficient troops, the tainted contracting process and so on.To be fair, Washington has persevered in its quest to create a representative democracy in Iraq. But American surprise at the unfolding Sunni-Shiite schism, and our lack of preparedness to deal with the early dismantlement of the Iraqi military, have made the world’s reigning superpower look, once again, oddly naive.And though it pledges to “stay the course” in Iraq, the Bush administration has long since fled the battlefield of ideas. It embarrassingly resorts only to Orwellian talk of a “war on terror” instead of addressing real issues, and its claims of relentless success are not to be taken seriously.Most opponents of the war are hardly in a position to gloat about American difficulties in Iraq. Russia, France and Germany all cynically manipulated the run-up to the war for their own purposes, and they comforted Hussein by allowing him to believe that the international community would never take concerted action against him. And much of the mocking by Bush critics about the supposed absurdity of the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction is revisionist nonsense. As the New York Times reported last Sunday, Hussein’s own top military commanders were stunned to learn three months before the start of the war that they had no WMD at their disposal. There is a Shakespearean quality to the tale of the dictator bluffing his way to his own demise, and it’s hard for those of us who opposed the war to bemoan his removal.As it enters its fourth year, the war in Iraq defies simplistic characterizations from both ends of the political spectrum. The heroism of U.S. forces and of ordinary Iraqis going about their daily lives is inspiring. But the future of Iraq remains shrouded in gray uncertainty.

Last year, The Times avoided an outright anniversary piece, noting instead at the end of March that Congress seemed ready to set withdrawal deadlines for spring 2008, even if picking a date was “arbitrary” and “purely symbolic,” unlike a funding cut-off. The Times also plainly expressed its opinion of withdrawal — that Congress shouldn’t micromanage, that criteria need to be met first, and that Iraqi leaders needed to be pressured:

Thursday, March 29, 2007 Endgame on IraqThe withdrawal language is wrongheaded. As we have argued before, it is bad precedent and bad public policy for Congress to attempt to micromanage military operations in Iraq.... If the United States, through a last-ditch military effort combined with political initiatives, can quell the violence in Iraq and demonstrate progress, then a U.S. military presence for more than the congressionally approved year might be a good investment. But if the troop surge, after some months, fails to improve either the security or political situation, then a year would be too long to leave U.S. troops in Iraq.Although Congress’ stand may be irrelevant from a policy standpoint — no troops will be withdrawn because of it — it can still have practical value, placing additional pressure on the president to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government more involved in policing its own citizens....None of this is to say that Congress must sit by passively. If a majority of the people’s representatives conclude that the effort to stabilize Iraq has failed, then Congress should vote to cut off war funding. That is its constitutional privilege. But a willingness to wait even a few months to see the results of the surge strategy, followed if necessary by a meaningful threat to cut off funding for combat by a specific date, is more likely to focus Iraqi minds than the current, purely political, play.