About Face: Experts Rethink the Iraq War

In Lawrence H. Summers’ Elmwood living room, a hand-picked group of Harvard foreign policy experts balanced their dinner plates on their laps. Weeks before the invasion of Iraq, Summers, then University president, had brought the professors together to discuss the coming war. Summers held court from a couch and directed the conversation.

Two professors present at the dinner remember there was widespread skepticism about the reasons the Bush administration had provided for war—but nearly all thought the war would be a success.

“In medicine, there’s medical malpractice,” Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62 said.

“In law, you can be disbarred. Well, how about in our business?”

The answer, Allison said, is that there is no formal way of holding intellectuals responsible for their ideas, no matter how badly they get them wrong.

Politicians and presidential candidates who supported the Iraq War have been held publicly accountable for their votes, but academics advocates of the war have not faced the same kind of scrutiny, said Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science in International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

A DREAM DEFERRED

Only weeks after Sept. 11, Government professor Stephen P. Rosen ’74 signed a notorious open letter from the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century to President Bush advocating regime change in Baghdad.

“Any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” the letter read.

Five years after the invasion, Rosen said in a recent interview that he is not sure whether the war in Iraq has actually served as a deterrent.

“Whether we are killing more al-Qaida members than we are creating—that’s hard to tell,” he said.

Rosen’s support for the war has remained unflagging, even as he has criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the reconstruction of Iraq.

“I still think it was necessary,” he said.

But over the past three years, Rosen’s optimism about the prospects for democracy in Iraq has faded.

From the American perspective, Rosen said, the best-case scenario for Iraq may now be “some sort of government backed by military power, which allows a certain amount of democracy at the local level.”

“Everyone would have liked to see a democracy in Iraq, including me,” Rosen added.

“I think the essential thing is to generate an Iraq which is not an aggressor state, which is not falling apart.”

ON THE BOOKS

Lost somewhere in Allison’s Kennedy School office is a betting book that documents just how confident Belfer Center experts were that Americans would discover biological or chemical weapons in Iraq.

“People always misremember their own views,” Allison said.

This is why the man who once worked next to Colin Powell likes to make his own “track record” to keep himself and his colleagues honest about the quality of their judgment.

Allison’s preferred form is a betting book in which he records the wagers he and his fellow policy experts are willing to make about the future.

His colleagues “place small bets” on their predictions—just a couple dollars, he said, whatever’s “enough to matter.”

Some of his colleagues bet there was a 99 percent likelihood of discovering weapons, Allison said.

He remembers only one colleague who said there was zero chance that anyone would find chemical or biological weapons in Iraq: Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Matthew S. Meselson.

Meselson did not return a request for comment.

NOT QUITE ‘VINDICATED’

Unlike most of his Belfer Center colleagues, Ashton B. Carter had already seen all the cards the Bush administration was holding.

A former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the Clinton administration, Carter had been privy to the same Iraq intelligence that President Bush used—intelligence that dated back to 1998.

He was also a specialist in nuclear weapons proliferation.

On the eve of the war, Carter told The Crimson that the United States would be “vindicated when we are able to hold up and show the chemical and biological arsenal that is the cause of this war.”

“It will not be seen that we did it without the U.N. Security Council, but that the Security Council did not have the fortitude and appreciation to see it done,” he added.

Carter said he made the same mistakes as the administration’s CIA analysts did.

He trusted the 1998 intelligence, and said he believed that Saddam “was like Fearless Leader in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, where in reality he was delusional.”

But given his own belief in the weapons threat at the time, Carter said, “I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

MEA CULPA?

Allison may not be able to find his betting book, but some professors at Summers’ dinner discussion still remember the tenor of expert opinion before the war.

“I came away with the sense that many, if not most, in the room, were skeptical of the Administration’s policies toward Iraq,” economics professor Jeffry A. Frieden wrote in an e-mail recalling that night.

But, he wrote, his impression of experts in the room was that “they largely believed that Saddam Hussein did in fact have weapons of mass destruction; and that the invasion would probably succeed in its immediate goals.”

Louise M. Richardson, a lecturer at the Law School and the author of “What Terrorists Want,” was the only one who predicted that night just how difficult the course of the conflict would be, Frieden wrote.

Richardson said she remembers voicing doubt about how easy it would be to defeat Saddam—not a particularly prescient comment, it turned out—but also about how easy it would be to win the peace.

“I certainly felt I was the lone wolf,” she said.

“Nobody likes to be seen as soft on terrorism, soft on the bad guys.”

For the Harvard academics who predicted the current turmoil in Iraq, the lack of accountability for the war’s intellectual supporters can be frustrating.

No policy expert has a perfect track record, said Belfer Center expert Stephen M. Walt, who was one of 36 American political scientists to sign an advertisement in The New York Times in September 2002 opposing the war.

Only one of his Harvard colleagues, Stephen E. Miller, joined him in signing the letter.

“What is more troubling is the absence of remorse or regret or humility on the part of many of the people who helped get the country into war,” Walt said.

“I’d feel better, I suppose, if a few of the people who were responsible had expressed some regret for the human suffering.”

—Prateek Kumar contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.