As we saw again in this week’s debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump refuses to acknowledge that, in a September 2002 radio interview with Howard Stern, he said it was “a good idea” to go to war against Iraq.
In fact, he now claims that before the war began in March 2003, he voiced opposition to its initiation and worked actively to prevent it.
I understand Trump’s reluctance to own up to his advocacy for the greatest blunder by the United States in world affairs since Vietnam. In the winter and early spring of 2003, I wrote op-eds for local newspapers, and gave talks at area meetings, in support of launching the Iraq war.
Soon after hostilities commenced, the Bush administration’s central justification for the war – Saddam had biological and chemical weapons and was close to having nuclear weapons – was shown to be false. What took longer for me was coming to grips with the reasons why advocating for the war had been totally wrong.
In my case, I had not only assumed the worst about the weapons Saddam possessed or could build, but also that the U.S. could not rely on air power only to destroy those weapons if necessary, that Saddam’s arsenal and intentions compelled us to keep a large military force in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and that it was this U.S. presence in the region that was the taproot of Islamist terrorism. I thought: Get rid of Saddam, bring home the troops from the Arabian Peninsula and take away al-Qaida’s reason for being.
I learned painful lessons. For example, I learned that following the international rule that a country needs explicit authorization from the U.N. Security Council to launch a war for reasons other than self-defense is a safeguard against making a stupid mistake. In the Iraq case, the Bush team started well by getting in November 2002 a strong U.N. resolution that demanded Saddam come clean about his weapons programs. The White House then lost patience and went to war without waiting to see whether Saddam would actually comply, and without a U.N. authorization for war.
In addition, I learned that when going to war, it’s good to have the support of faithful allies (like the British), but it’s more indicative that such a war makes sense if you also attain the support of sometimes skeptical friends (like the French).
So what should we make of Donald Trump’s refusal to admit that he supported the Iraq war?
It probably means that he doesn’t learn from serious errors of judgment. If he can’t admit that he made a mistake, then he can’t diagnose why he did so, and so cannot learn from his experience.
It probably also means that he has a low opinion of us, the American public. He may believe that we have such a short attention span, or are so readily distracted by his theatrics, that he can tell us a falsehood and get away with it. That, too, should give us pause.
There is a final possibility: Trump may genuinely believe he didn’t tell Stern that he thought it was “a good idea” to invade Iraq. Perhaps, in his mind, he really believes he warned us not to go into Iraq and took action to try to forestall the invasion.
This possibility should truly give us pause for it raises the prospect that Trump is prone to delusional thinking, which is something we cannot afford in an American president.
Joseph M. Grieco is a professor of political science at Duke University.