Rich Lowry quotes some of George Tenet’s book and argues that the Iraq debate “was always fundamentally about how much risk we were willing to tolerate in a post-9/11 environment.” Or, as Tenet says, Iraq “was never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise.” Two points in response. One is that while this was, indeed, one of the debates taking place within elite circles that has almost no resemblance to the public debate playing out in the media which was a demagogic scare campaign designed to convince people that the country faced an imminent threat from Iraq.
The other is that it’s staggering how wrongheaded that Tenet/Lowry framing of the issue was. The underlying presumption was that achieving the goals of the campaign — replacing Saddam’s regime with a stable one congenial to American interests — would be basically unproblematic. Perhaps somewhat costly in terms of money or achieving secondary diplomatic objectives, but basically something we could achieve if we just decided to. To not invade was to tolerate a certain level of risk, whereas to invade was to proclaim the risk intolerable. Off the Lowry/Tenet tables was the basic reality that the downside risks involved in engaging in preventive war are actually enormous.