Sometimes, Consensus Can Be Ruinous

The Iraq War revealed the downside of cooperation and national unity.

A photograph of tanks with an American flag in the foreground
Christopher Anderson / Magnum

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was the most consequential political event of the past two decades. But it doesn’t feel that way. It has the faint whiff of youthful indiscretion, an episode that many Americans would rather forget. I was 19. The tenor of that time in American life—after the September 11 attacks—seems ever more foreign to me. Instead of the chaotic information overload of the current moment, in which consensus appears impossible, the early 2000s were a time of conformity, authority, and security. When I think about why even the mere idea of consensus makes me anxious to this day, I keep coming back to what happened 20 long years ago. Consensus can be nice, but it can also be dangerous.

Once American ground troops were engaged in Afghanistan, risking their lives fighting the Taliban, any criticism of the war effort invited charges of disloyalty. That was the “good war.” I was a freshman in college on 9/11. Just a year later, in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, I became active in the anti-war movement. Grappling with my own identity as an American Muslim in an environment rife with Islamophobia, I wanted somewhere to belong—a safe space, so to speak. And I found it. For the first and probably last time, I organized a die-in. I also helped organize a “tent-in” with a group of friends and fellow travelers, a motley crew of socialists, anarchists, and ordinary students who found themselves stupefied by a war that seemed self-evidently absurd. In the weeks before the war began—and then for the entire duration of the invasion—we protested by setting up camp in Georgetown University’s free-expression zone, the ironically named Red Square. In practice, at least one person was expected to sleep in the tents on any given night, which translated into a continuous presence of more than 2,000 hours.

We failed. Obviously, we were just college students, naive and not yet cynical. But there were many of us. On February 15 and 16, 2003—a weekend of coordinated anti-war demonstrations around the globe—more than 6 million people filled the streets in hundreds of cities. As Patrick Tyler put it in The New York Times, “There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” It was an odd thought, that the people, united, could stop a terrible thing from happening.

When President George W. Bush infamously declared in May 2003—less than a month after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces—that the mission had been accomplished, an extended period of confusion and reckoning set in. After the apathy and triumphalism ushered in by the Cold War’s end, mass mobilization was back. But what was the point of people power if government officials couldn’t be bothered to listen? They had already decided. A relatively small number of so-called neoconservatives, many of whom had run in the same rarified intellectual circles, were committed to a marriage of overwhelming power and maximalist purpose. As the Lebanese American scholar Fouad Ajami described it:

A reforming zeal must thus be loaded up with the baggage and the gear. No great apologies ought to be made for America’s “unilateralism.” The region can live with and use that unilateralism. The considerable power now at America’s disposal can be used by one and all as a justification for going along with American goals.

Like most utopians, they may have been well-meaning in their fervor. A true believer himself, George W. Bush had admirable views about democracy’s universality, for which he deserves some credit. He excoriated critics for suggesting that Arabs weren’t ready for democracy; this was nothing more than “cultural condescension,” he said. He was right. In a November 2003 speech marking the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, he asked, “Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it.”

But the stated justification for invading Iraq was not that Saddam Hussein was a dictator. After all, America’s closest allies in the region were dictatorships too. As senior administration officials told the United Nations and Congress, military action was necessary because Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction and was therefore a mortal threat to the Middle East. Others who might have otherwise been skeptical about the indiscriminate use of American power—including prominent Democrats such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—fell in line. In October 2002, 39 percent of Democrats in the House supported the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. Remarkably, 58 percent of Senate Democrats voted in favor. It was the worst and perhaps most tragic example of “bipartisan cooperation” in recent American history.

Their hearts weren’t necessarily in it, but Senate Democrats were an ambitious bunch. For anyone who aspired to higher office, being on the wrong side of the right war was a risky proposition. With the wounds of September 11 still smarting, vengeance was in the air. In mainstream media outlets, passionate anti-war voices—before the war, rather than after—were difficult to find. I mostly got my daily dose of anti-war news and coverage from small leftist websites. I even wrote for one such publication: It was (and still is) called CounterPunch, a wholly appropriate description of both the futility and pluckiness of the endeavor.

A sizable minority of Americans had their reservations about this new culture of patriotic deference, but they were on the defensive from the very start. The post-9/11 consensus was a tragedy upon a tragedy, exemplified by a 98–1 Senate vote for the PATRIOT Act just 44 days after the attacks. “National unity” is usually an aspiration not met. Here, it seemed within reach.

This was bipartisan cooperation at its best but also its worst. At more than 130 pages, the PATRIOT Act—a suitably Orwellian acronym for “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”—ushered in a perpetually overreaching national-security state and a litany of civil-rights abuses that disproportionately affected Arab and Muslim communities. As the ACLU described it, “While most Americans think it was created to catch terrorists, the Patriot Act actually turns regular citizens into suspects.” Under an expansive surveillance regime, the FBI issued about 192,000 “national security letters” from 2003 to 2006, which allowed it to access the private information of American citizens without a warrant.

This is what unity, consensus, and cooperation made possible in the fog of war. For those Americans today who lament polarization and long for a return to the politics of consensus, be careful what you wish for. In 2001, within a sprawling, unwieldy democracy of 285 million people, what could “consensus” even mean? As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe has written, “All forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion.” The post-9/11 consensus was artificial, guided and reinforced from above. It was also fleeting. When the Bush administration’s hold on the public imagination weakened, Americans returned to their natural boisterousness and distrust of politicians and institutions alike. This is a good thing.

When it comes to wars of choice—which is to say, most wars—Americans should disagree among themselves, and they should express those disagreements forcefully. A democratized news landscape, like democracy itself, can be messy. But that messiness is essential. A certain kind of chaos is precisely what allows for a vibrant exchange of contending and conflicting views. In a democracy, the majority still rules. At the same time, embattled minorities need avenues—and encouragement—to register their dissent, in the hope of convincing enough of their fellow citizens that they are right. Because sometimes they are. And the Iraq War was one of those times.