BACK during the early 1990s, when the puppet regimes of the Soviet bloc collapsed in rapid succession, there was a bewildering silence from the liberal Western punditry. The once-vitriolic critics of Ronald Reagan – who warned he would lead us into nuclear war, who said communism was here to stay and must be accommodated – refused to acknowledge their error. Now as we approach the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq – which I loudly, even obnoxiously, supported – I can sympathize with the anti-Cold Warriors’ reluctance to admit being wrong about the pre-eminent issue of the day. There’s no longer any denying the war was a mistake. Although the Bush administration long insisted that things were going quite well in Iraq, even the administration now concedes there are serious problems. Thus, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and the need for a “surge” to stave off total disaster. To be sure, the world is in some important ways better off without Saddam Hussein. And I still hold hope, based on recent, midsurge reports, that the situation in Iraq may stabilize. Moreover, I fail to see how the U.S. could possibly withdraw anytime soon without handing a massive victory to our enemies or abandoning our allies to slaughter. No, the real reason for my poor judgment – and, I suspect, that of many others – has less to do with defects in our leaders’ thinking or character than with defects in our own. As a Catholic, I believe as a matter of reason and faith that the church’s “just war” criteria are the best standards by which to decide if military action is morally legitimate. Those criteria are that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; (and) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Although I once thought the war met those standards, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes all too clear that I was rationalizing my ideological, pro-military inclinations, as well as an urgent need to do something – anything – about the Islamist threat that so wickedly announced itself on Sept. 11, 2001. The danger Saddam ostensibly posed may have been “lasting” and “grave,” but it was far from “certain.” Even if he did have WMDs, there was no solid reason to conclude – as I and others did – that he was likely to pass them on to terrorists. After all, in a decade he had seemingly never done so before. And while it’s fair to say that peaceful means for dealing with Hussein had proved ineffective – witness the long litany of ignored U.N. resolutions – I overestimated our “prospects of success” while underestimating the “evils and disorders” that would follow Saddam’s ouster. The seminal military event of my youth was not Vietnam, but the first Gulf War – which, coupled with the likes of Grenada, Panama and the initial, apparently easy victory in Afghanistan – led me to a foolish belief in the invincibility of American forces. I also placed far too much stock in the universal appeal of American ideals – never mind the obvious, off-putting excesses of American culture. Some of these errors were predictable, others less so. Because of my own political prejudices, I failed to take seriously the war’s critics, let alone to truly question leaders whom I perceived to be on “my side” of the ideological divide. (Little did I know these leaders would go on to embrace a horrific wink-and-nod policy on torture.) The reason I catalog these errors now is not just because it’s important to own up to one’s mistakes, but also because they weren’t mine alone. The invasion, lest anyone forget, had broad public support and received overwhelming bipartisan congressional approval. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here about the perils of ideology and letting passion override prudence. But there’s no joy in admitting one’s intellectual mistakes or moral shortcomings. That’s all the more true in the case of Iraq, where heroes and innocents have paid the price in blood for others’ shamefully bad judgment, mine included. Chris Weinkopf is the Daily News’ editorial-page editor. Write to him by e-mail at [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Yet neither the slim reed of hope that still exists in Iraq, nor our obligation to stay there for the time being, can justify the decision to invade in the first place. It’s tempting, as some erstwhile invasion backers have done, to blame my one-time support on others. For liberals, the most popular dodge is to claim that President Bush lied about Hussein’s nonexistent WMD stockpile. For conservatives, the typical excuse is that, even though the war was a great idea, Bush and Co. botched its execution. Either way, fault lies entirely with the administration and not at all with those of us who cheered its policies. I don’t buy it. For one, there’s no credible evidence that Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction. All the world’s intelligence agencies and the United Nations believed Saddam still possessed more of the WMDs he had used a decade earlier. That suspicion was only bolstered by the long-standing cat-and-mouse game he played with U.N. weapons inspectors. In retrospect, that suspicion was wrong, but it was entirely reasonable, given what we knew at the time. As for the incompetence argument, to paraphrase Rumsfeld: You go to war with the administration you have, not the administration you wish you had. Implicit in anyone’s support of the war was the belief that those in charge were up to the job of executing it. If they weren’t, we supporters share responsibility for a misplaced confidence.