In interviews over the past two weeks, 2016 hopefuls are facing a hypothetical question on the Iraq War: "knowing what we know now" would they have authorized the 2003 invasion? But James Fallows of The Atlanticsays that's the wrong question because it suggests the decision to go into Iraq came down to faulty intelligence. Fallows talks to Brooke about the better questions to ask candidates about the war and how to really learn from historical mistakes.
Bob Garfield: From WNYC in New-York, this is on the media. I'm Bob Garfield.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The media's big question of the past two weeks is one that's sure to dog the candidates on the way to 2016 looks back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq here's Fox's Meghan Kelly.
CLIP- Meghan Kelly: Knowing what we know now would you have authorized the invasion?
Brooke: The ultimate softball right? And yet somehow faced with hindsight questions on Iraq four times last week, Jeb Bush flowed four times starting at yes and ending at no. And not just Jeb, here's Marco Rubio with Fox's Chris Wallace.
CLIP- Marco: A president cannot make a decision on what someone might know in the future.
Chris: That's what I'm asking you, was it a mistake?
Marco: It was not a mistake for the president to go into Iraq based on the information he was provided as president.
Brooke: Recently, such presidential hopefuls and would-be hopefuls as Ted Cruise, Scott Walker, Chris Christy, and John Kasick, all agreed that knowing what we know now they wouldn't have gone in. So good for them they passed that test. But it doesn't matter anyway because the question itself is a fail.James Fallows recently took on the issue in the Atlantic.
CLIP- James Fallows: Every time people pose the question that way as if it was a matter of just what the balance of evidence had been, they conceal the real history of the Iraq war which was there was a drive to war way before there was any public discussion of the WMD and the WMD became an excuse for something that was going to happen anyway.
Brooke: A pretext, as Paul Krugman wrote in his column this week and you've reported that war itself was predetermined.
James Fallows: There are people who argue that the security team that was around George W. Bush had thought that there was a non-closed loop in the war against Saddam Hussein back during the first golf war in 1991 that the effort to expunge this ultimate source of terrorism in their view would not be complete until regime change came to Iraq. What is absolutely certain is that within a day or two of the 9/11 attacks there were discussions within the administration saying we don't know where this came from but we know that the answer has to involve Iraq. What happened in the middle of 2002 and late 2002 was this background concern about Iraq suddenly being elevated to the status of imminent national security threat. You had Condoleezza Rice with her "You don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud", Dick Chaney with his famous speech saying that we know for certain that Saddam Hussein was building these weapons but it rose to prominent only after the troops were already moving and the replace were already drawn up for the invasion of Iraq.
Brooke: So, if you knew then what we know now, it's a terrible question. Let's get to some better ones, you've suggested two.
James: Yes. And the first one will be just very for the record matter of fact, if you think back of sort of the moment of decision of late 2002 or late 2003 please tell us mister or madame candidate how you assess the evidence and where you came out, just so we have a starting point of what you thought. The real question is the next one:tell us what you have learned from this experience, your own experience of assessing the information, the nation's experience in going to war, and how your knowledge will shape the assumptions you bring to the next commitment of force how you think about the efficacy of military force in this part of the world, the lessons you have learned.
Brooke: That question is very close to one, former defense secretary, Robert Gates asked WNYC's Brian Lehrer this week.
CLIP- Robert Gates: The question that has value is what lessons should we learn from our experience going into Iraq in the first place, the mistakes that were made there, what do we takeaway from that in terms of, for examples, the limitations on our ability to shape events in this region.
James: Well I haven't heard that quote until this second, it's as if I had internalized the secretary Gates makes the point better than I have in this passed minute that we can't change the past, we can affect the future and let's hear what our leaders have taken from it.
Brooke: Why do you think so many interviewers seem to resort to asking the lousy, if we knew then, question?
James: Journalists are less expert on any given topic than the people they are speaking with usually. These are easier questions to ask without knowing a lot about the circumstances than some other questions.
Brooke: What worries me the most about posing the question this way on the basis that we went into war because of bad intelligence that it seems to let the press off-the-hook for stating what we do know, and it lets the political establishment off-the-hook from engaging with the questions of the real lessons of that war. It's it's actually not just uninformative but it's counter-informative.
James: Yes and yes, the next step I would take it is that after the last big bad experience the US had militarily, after the Vietnam war, there was in my view accountability the press went through some examinations about what it had reported right or wrong, certainly the military went through a prolonged and agonizing examination about how they had done so poorly. Lyndon Johnson was only the most prominent of the people who were punished politically for having gotten us into Vietnam. It's very hard to see signs that they comparably thorough exercise of accountability for the wars of the past dozen years which were partly bad intelligence but mainly other things. And so I think, probably not intentionally but the press’s posing of this question is part of the ongoing aversion to accountability saying we should learn about that but also recognize specific people making specific mistakes.
Brooke: So, is the bright side of this kerfuffle over a bad question that at least is has us going back over Iraq?
James: I think that if the controversy began and ended with whether Jeb Bush made a mistake, whether Marco Rubio made a gaff then the whole episode would be a net significant minus for the collective IQ. If it might be the beginning of actually dealing with what the US has done for the last dozen years militarily perhaps this episode that began as a gaff could become a positive exercise.
Brooke: James thank you very much,
James: Thank you Brooke.
Brooke: James Fallows is national correspondent for the Atlantic.