New York Times columnist David Brooks asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates Monday whether, "knowing what we know now," invading Iraq was a "good idea." Brooks said Gates looked at him for a moment and then said, "I don't know."
The press, understandably, has seized on Gates' comment as evidence that the secretary of defense and his boss aren't necessarily on the same page about the war. But now Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell is explaining that Brooks had it all wrong.
See if you can follow Morrell's explanation:
"Let me just -- just because I think there's some confusion what [Gates] actually did say ... Brooks asked him, 'So now do you think in retrospect, knowing what we know about WMDs, it was worth doing?'
"To which the secretary then went on to sort of rephrase the question to a point where he was comfortable with it and he thought it was relevant and he could answer it. And he said, 'If I had known then what I know now, would I have done the same? And I think the answer is, I don't know.'
"And I went up and spoke with him about this just a few moments ago, and he tells me he deliberately rephrased the question to get it to a point where he was comfortable answering it. And what he was basically saying -- if [he] had known then what he knows now, would he have done the same things? Would he have done it the same way? And his answer to 'would I have done the same things or would I have done it the same way' is, 'I don't know.'
"That does not in any way, I think, take away from his belief that he believes ousting Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. And you saw in his confirmation hearings where he offered a litany of things he thought had not gone well post-invasion. And so I think that's what his reference is to 'Would I have done the same things?'"
A reporter, noting that Morrell seemed to be adding a "parenthetical reference or something else" to the conversation, asked him to clarify what Gates himself had actually said. Morrell's response: "The answer is a lengthy preamble, but the final line in the answer is: 'If I had known then what I know now, would I have done the same? And I think the answer is, I don't know.' Now, what he tells me is that 'would I have done the same' is a reference to: 'Would I have done the same things? Would I have handled it the same way?' He is not referring to the initial decision to invade Iraq."
Here's the problem with Morrell's explanation, or at least one of them: Gates doesn't not know whether he would have "handled" post-invasions the same way they were handled; in his testimony during his confirmation hearing, he made it pretty clear that he wouldn't have. Among other things, he said the United States should have taken steps to keep the Iraqi army together after the invasion and that it should not have imposed such an "extreme Baathification policy" on Iraq.
As for whether Gates, knowing what we know today, would have invaded in the first place? The secretary said at his confirmation hearings pretty much exactly what Brooks quoted him as saying this week:
Sen. Mark Dayton: Given what we know today about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, given the predicament that we're in today, with that benefit of hindsight would you say that invading Iraq was the right decision or the wrong decision?
Gates: Frankly, Senator, I think that's a judgment that the historians are going to have to make. I certainly supported the decision to go into Iraq in 2003, and not just because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
It was clear that the food for peace program -- the Oil-for-Food Program was failing, it was totally corrupted, and the money was being diverted. It was clear that the sanctions were weakening. And I had no doubt in my mind that once the sanctions were removed by the U.N. and it looked like the French and the Russians and others were moving in that direction, that Saddam, if he didn't have weapons of mass destruction, would move quickly to try and obtain them ...
He clearly had [not] changed his spots in the slightest, and so that's the reason that I supported the decision to go in, as well as the fact that I thought he had the weapons of mass destruction, as I like to put it, just like every intelligence service in the world, apparently, including the French.
So was the decision to go in right? I think it's too soon to tell. And I think much depends on the outcome in Iraq.