I have a vivid, bleak memory of sitting in a hotel room in Havana, Cuba, watching CNN as Colin Powell addressed the United Nations about the deadly risk of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
Like millions of Americans, I was convinced. In the months after 9/11 our elected leaders had gathered intelligence, analyzed the facts, and reached a harrowing conclusion:
It would be necessary for our young men and women to fight to defend our nation on two fronts, in Afghanistan where the fight was already underway, and then in Iraq.
Surely, a decision of that magnitude must have been made with the greatest gravity and deliberation, right?
We know now that the case for war was far weaker that Powell and other Bush-era officials let on. And the effort to gather pre-war intelligence was less honest and less competent than any of us could have dreamed.
Journalists like myself contributed mightily to this disaster by failing to be skeptical enough. Guilty as charged.
Perhaps most harrowing was the dawning realization that America’s military simply wasn’t prepared to fight two land wars on the far side of the globe simultaneously.
We lacked the equipment, the training and the tactics to secure a peaceful Iraq quickly. In the end, more than 4,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis died.
Equally shattering was the realization that our political culture lacked the will to actually pay for the conflict.
We literally borrowed the money to fight this war, leaving generations of Americans in debt, and few resources in reserve for caring for sounded veterans returning home.
Earlier this year, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up this painful collection of facts with crushing clarity:
“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General Douglas MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates said.
We are now in the process of rapidly drawing down forces from our overseas commitments. The Iraq War is officially over. Combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan in the months ahead.
But it strikes me that we are still entangled in a much wider net that we wove for ourselves after 9/11. Our nation has expanded elements of its secret government dramatically.
There are laws now allowing surveillance and detention of our citizens. Guantanamo Bay remains open. More and more drone aircraft patrol U.S. skies.
We spend trillions of dollars on border security, defense programs, spy agencies, and other measures with little scrutiny, little evaluation of whether these costly efforts make us safer.
Most Americans agree that we have to do more now to keep our nation safe. And there is a nearly uniform acclaim for the soldiers and other service-members who are on the front lines.
If this is a story with a lot of villains, there are also thousands upon thousands of heroes.
But if this is to be a permanent state of alarm — a never-ending posture of looking over our shoulders — we need to be smarter, more self-critical and more more wary of the costs, both in dollars and in the erosion of our civil liberties.
Yes, we learned one thing from 9/11 — that we have to be more wary of our enemies.
But we learned quite another thing from the invasion of Iraq — that we also have to keep a wary, skeptical eye on our own government.