In the NY Times Sunday Book Review, Michael Lewis writes about Colin Powell’s speech in front of the UN in February 2003:
Walking into the United Nations, Powell understood he was being used by the administration to persuade not foreign governments but the American people. And persuade them he did. Before his speech, DeYoung points out, two-thirds of Americans were against going to war; after it, half of them favored war. Three-quarters of those polled by The Los Angeles Times said they felt Powell had proved the case against Iraq. Before the speech Colin Powell was the most unambiguously admired figure in public life. “You’ve got high poll ratings,” Cheney said to him beforehand, as he poked Powell in the chest. “You can afford to lose a few points.” “They needed him to do it,” Powell’s wife, Alma, says here, “because they knew people would believe him.”
Colin Powell used the trust he had earned over decades of public service to sell the American public on a dubious war. This will not easily be forgotten.
But in the end, the American public is responsible for this war. The public supported the war and re-elected President Bush a year and a half into it, basically ratifying the decision to invade. It's true that many people opposed the war from the start, but these people were generally ignored or marginalized until recently. There was certainly a failure of leadership on both sides of the political aisle, and the media mostly abdicated its role as government watchdog in the run-up to the war. But the failings that made this war possible run much deeper and broader than that—they are failings in how we see the world and how we see ourselves.
We see ourselves as always doing the right thing, even when we’re not (firebombing Dresden and Tokyo in WWII, installing the shah in Iran in 1953, helping to overthrow democratically-elected governments in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, invading Vietnam, or bombing Cambodia, for example). For many people, definitionally, the U.S. cannot err in its foreign policy because it acts, based on Constitutional principles, with the consent of its people. (Whether consent has been given when it is not asked for until after the fact merits another discussion entirely.) Along these lines, Americans tend to think the government spends much more on foreign aid than it actually does.
We go to great lengths to convince ourselves that what is in America’s interest is in everyone else’s interest as well. We most often run into trouble when we fool ourselves into thinking we’re acting in the interest of other people when we’re really only acting in our own interest, and often not even that. Guatemala 1954 led to Cuba 1959. Iran 1953 led to Iran 1979. Iraq 2003 will lead to . . . God knows what.
The fact is that, aside from national rhetoric about all men being born equal, we don’t really believe foreigners have the same rights as we do—the right to life, liberty, and so on. And they clearly don’t under the domestic political system we’ve set up and the international political system in which we participate. So when we went in to “liberate” Iraq or Afghanistan, making the Iraqi or Afghan people better off was never one of our top priorities, and it never will be under the current international political system. All assertions to the contrary are either deliberate untruths or pleasant self-delusions. If the Iraq invasion had truly been a humanitarian intervention, the American public never would have supported it. This fundamental disjuncture between the interests of the Iraqis and the interests of the U.S. is why so many Iraqis have died and why we have no idea what we’re doing there now. And it is why whatever we end up doing to extract ourselves from the situation, the Iraqis will suffer for it more than we will.
The American people bought this war, and now we—and (mostly) the Iraqis—will pay for it.