When something goes wrong, people can’t help but point fingers. For example, academics and historians are still arguing over who is to blame for World War I. Was it Germany, which whet the Austro-Hungarian appetite for war during the July Crisis? Was it Serbia, which at the time was consumed by a flood of nationalism? Was it Britain’s failure to mediate? This debate is still alive today, a century after the start of the war, because finding the most correct answer to these questions is still incredibly valuable, and difficult. In the buildup to the war, whoever pointed their finger most convincingly swayed public policy, and in retrospect, history lessons are most valuable when we’ve got the cause-effect relationship as correct as possible.
The same thing is happening today in the political sphere of the United States. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, to pick an example, politicians and the public nearly drowned in an ocean of finger pointing. For a while, it was not clear who was rightly to blame, but in the zealous years following the attacks, politicians rode a wave of public support and took steps to remedy the situation, even before there was any time to double-check the research. Ultimately, in March 2003, that led to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Blame for the invasion — which ultimately turned into a war lasting more than a decade — has been passed around like a hot potato. Do we blame President George W. Bush for having an itchy trigger finger? Do we blame Congress for failing to check the administration? Or do we blame the general public — voters, to be specific — for electing those decision makers in the first place?
There have been situations, such as during the 2000 presidential election, in which one candidate won the popular vote, but ultimately lost at the hand of a Supreme Court decision. Those events were unprecedented, and also haven’t been repeated since. While it’s an example of how the election system can veer off the rails, by and large, the system does a fair job at exacting the will of the majority when deciding between two or three candidates.
One popular idea is that given the nature of the geopolitical climate and landscape, there was little anyone outside the government could have done to stop the war in Iraq from happening. Public activism may have caused a stir, but the powers that be would have eventually gotten the war they wanted. Many Americans feel like this notion exonerates them from responsibility for the war, but that’s not necessarily true; Americans do bear responsibility, because they are responsible for the placement of members of Congress as well as the president — the only people with the authority to take military action.