Seemed Like a Good Idea, and Still Does

President Bush has challenged John Kerry to say—yes or no—whether he would have supported the invasion of Iraq “knowing what we know now” about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

Kerry told an interviewer on “60 Minutes” that he is “against the war” and thinks “the president made a mistake in the way he took us to war.” He says what he voted for “was an authority for the president to go to war as a last resort if Saddam Hussein did not disarm and we needed to go to war.”

But, in that same interview, Kerry added: “I believe, based on the information we have, it was the correct vote.” Kerry’s somewhat contradictory answer makes sense, at least from a psychological perspective. That’s because we have a hard time traveling back to an earlier date in our minds, subtracting faulty assumptions and recalculating our decisions. The act of making and then rationalizing that first decision changes our minds in powerful and consequential ways.

Students of social psychology will recall the workings of cognitive dissonance—our painful awareness of information that is inconsistent with our actions. To reduce this unpleasantness, we’re predisposed to justify our behavior. Smokers persuade themselves that smoking is a relatively harmless pleasure. Aggressors blame their victims. Attitudes follow behavior.

After the Iraq invasion, many Americans were awash in cognitive dissonance. The war’s main premise was that Hussein had potentially devastating weapons of mass destruction. As the war began, only 38% said in a Gallup Poll that the war was justified even if Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Nearly 4 in 5 Americans believed their troops would find such weapons, and a similar percentage supported the just-launched war. Surely most Americans, and John Kerry and his Senate colleagues, would not have supported the war had they known then what they know now.

But when no WMD were found, Kerry and many others experienced dissonance, which was heightened by their awareness of the war’s financial and human costs, by scenes of Iraqi chaos, by surging anti-American attitudes in Europe and in Muslim countries and by inflamed pro-terrorist sentiments. Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wondered whether we were creating terrorists faster than we were eliminating them.

To reduce dissonance, some people revised their memories of their government’s primary rationale for going to war. The reasons now became construed as liberating an oppressed people from tyrannical rule and laying the groundwork for a peaceful Middle East. So as time went on, the once-minority opinion became the majority view: 58% of Americans said in one poll that they supported the war even if there were no WMD, and today most of those still do.

“Whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction doesn’t matter,” suggested GOP pollster Frank Luntz, “because the rationale for the war changed.”

With national commissions having now declared that there were no WMD and that Hussein played no part in 9/11—nor was his dilapidated army much of a threat—do any politicians who supported the war live with regret?

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), realizing the war rationale has lost its legs, openly regrets his vote. But he is among the few. Sens. Kerry and John Edwards have not been able to say their vote was wrong.

Bush has declared that “although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq,” and he offers a new justification: Hussein “had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them…. The decision I made was the right decision.”

Such self-justification reminds me of what every social psychology text teaches: Once made, decisions grow their own self-justifying legs of support. Often, these new legs are strong enough that when one leg is pulled away—perhaps the original one—the decision does not collapse. Not only do we sometimes stand up for what we believe, we come to believe in what we’ve stood up for.

Kerry cannot bring himself to say that, knowing what he knows today, “the Iraq war was a big screw-up” (as even Bill O’Reilly recently acknowledged to Tim Russert). No doubt, his mental machinery, like Bush’s and yours and mine, makes him believe in his own decisions.

He probably also is making a strategic decision not to feed the GOP charge that he is a flip-flopper. None of us likes to see ourselves, much less be seen by others, as a flip-flopper. But is it a sin to change one’s mind in light of new information? Or is the greater sin a self-justifying refusal to learn from mistakes?

David G. Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan, is the author of Social Psychology,_12th Edition _(McGraw-Hill).