And so, for the first time but certainly not the last, the narrative changed; the justification for an invasion of Iraq was that its government was in defiance of any number of international laws as well as the terms of surrender in the last Gulf War. This was a pretty good idea, as far as it went; the sort of people who were most likely to object to an invasion of Iraq were, generally, also the sort of people who would be swayed by an argument whose foundation was that of international law and the support of the United Nations. Unfortunately, this one didn't last long, for three reasons: first, the Iraqi government began to cooperate wholeheartedly with its legal requirements (which made the UN happy, but not the US, since the legal argument was built for failure to justify an invasion); second, because much of the UN opposed military action; and third, because the US proved all too willing to defy international law and the will of the United Nations itself, if it meant the difference between invading and not invading.
It was around this time that the so-called 'humanitarian argument' started to appear: it wasn't about Saddam Hussein being a threat, or defying international law, went this argument. It was about the freedom of the Iraqi people. We needed to invade in order to provide them with safety, security, and liberations from despotism; we were going to turn Iraq into a democracy. A very noble justification, this -- for who wants to find themselves arguing against liberation? But still, there were hiccups. The US never seemed to care much about the freedom of the Iraqi people in the 20 years of Saddam Hussein's rule prior to the first Gulf War, nor did they care about the freedom of oppressed people in many other parts of the world (including those countries which were our allies in Gulf War II). What's more, the track record of the United States introducing democratic rule in those countries where it had militarily intervened was, well, a bit shaky. (Later events have borne out this concern; with a US-installed "council" having just taken control in Iraq, answerable to what equates to an occupational government made up of American military and political appointees, democracy is as distant in Baghdad today as it was in 1989.)
So the story changed again: we started hearing endless opinionating, bloviating and fearmongering about WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. Nefarious biological agents, horrific chemical weapons, perhaps even the ultimate nightmare of a nuclear arsenal: Iraq had it all, and it wasn't a question of if he would use them, but when. (It was around this time when tenuous feelers were set out to see if anyone would buy the ludicrous notion that Iraq had something to do with the 2001 terror attacks on the United States. As it turned out, a lot of people would. Sadly, though, too many prominent public voices recognized that the link between Iraq and 9/11 was complete bullshit, and wouldn't shut up about it. The argument was quietly dropped, but this didn't stop plenty of talking heads -- official and otherwise -- from conjuring the notion of what might happen if Saddam Hussein gave the nuclear weapons we were assured he had to the Islamic terrorists we were assured he was conniving with.)
Of course, in the middle of all this squawking, we went ahead and invaded Iraq anyway, which is what we were going to do all along, good excuse or no.
Now that it's all over but the endless insurgency, the WMD argument has proven to be nonsense. Iraq is still not dangerous to the world; it still poses no threat to international law; it is still not free, and has no democracy; and it still has no weapons of mass destruction. Not only have we not found any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons worth talking about, we can't even find any evidence that there WERE any BEFORE we invaded; the search for a smoking gun has turned out to be as nebulous as the search for Bigfoot, and a number of American and British officials have noted on record that they are dubious any such weapons, or evidence of such weapons, will ever be found. To compound it all, the President of the United States has been shown to have lied about a major component of his Iraq-has-weapons-of-mass-destruction argument, and all the claims of his cabinet that the issue has been overblown and his own claims that he considers the subject closed has not made the questions go away.
Which brings us to yesterday, when National Security Adviser and Bush cabinet hatchet-woman Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with National Public Radio that "this was never about whether or not Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium. This was about ridding the world of a dangerous dictator."
So, we're back again to square one. After an endless series of retrofitting our justifications for an invasion of Iraq, only to see each one fall flat, we've returned to the original. Confident that the whole thing is by now a fait accompli, the cabinet trots out another mouthpiece to announce the latest revision to the "Why We Fight" storyline. This is, by my conservative count, Reboot 6.0 of the IRAQ WAR series, which must be something of a record. This sort of noodling about the reasons for military intervention is fairly new; in most previous US wars, we haven't needed to provide a pretext, and even when we have -- even in such transparently fabricated situations as Viet Nam and Grenada -- the story was the same before we started as it was after we finished: we were there to staunch the flow of the Communist scourge, or to protect American students. I can't recall a time when the government seemed to be making up its reasons for putting American troops in harm's way as they went along.
There's a word for this kind of retro-fitting of history, this reinvention of the past and present in order to make it fit what you want to do in the future, in the world of comic books. It's called "retroactive continuity", or "retconning". Comic fans always hate it when a writer retcons a story; it makes the sacrifices and agonies of the past irrelevant, the prospects for the future uncertain, and the people in charge untrustworthy, knowing that everything they know and assume about the presumptions and foundations of the world can change overnight. Nobody likes retcon, and writers and editors who attempt it are often not long for their jobs.
Let's hope that the American public is just as sick of retconning.