PROVO — They told us so four years ago this week, and their expert predictions about the aftermath of an American invasion of Iraq now appear downright prophetic.

In hindsight, what may be most striking about a guest editorial written by six Brigham Young University political science professors and printed in the Deseret News on Jan. 23, 2003, is that their questions about going to war in Iraq made little or no dent in public opinion.

The same can be said for similar statements made before the war by hundreds of scholars with vast Middle East experience or international security expertise.

That their insight gained so little traction demonstrates how difficult it was to stop the momentum that built in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Bush administration's insistence that Iraq had something to do with the attacks, said Gordon Silverstein, an expert on constitutional war powers at UC-Berkeley.

"When the president says he knows there is something going on and people at universities say they don't think he's right, that's tough for the public," Silverstein told the Morning News. "They're put in a position of deciding whether to trust a guy with the latest top-secret information or to trust these experts who might be years behind because they don't have immediate access to that information. Congress is also in a tough position, for the same reasons."

Now polls show the majority of Americans are troubled by President Bush's handling of the war. And the six BYU professors remain frustrated that many dismissed their educated opinions as unpatriotic or politically motivated.

"People just said, 'Well, professors are liberal. Even BYU has liberal professors. They're just contrarians,"' said Eric Hyer, an expert in security studies and international relations theory and conflict.

The guest editorial welcomed the prospect of Saddam Hussein's removal but correctly warned that:

• The United States had time for more debate before launching the war;

• American forces in Iraq could become targets of terrorism for years to come;

• A new but weak Iraqi government would invite civil war and widespread human suffering;

• Many nations would judge a preventive attack by the United States as unjustified.

"What strikes us was that Congress was uncritical, even the New York Times was uncritical," Hyer said.

"So was the rest of the media and the populace," BYU Middle East expert Donna Lee Bowen said. "The 'anti' voices were silenced. International relations professors had to take out a full-page ad because nobody was printing their editorials."

The ad, published in the New York Times and signed by 33 experts from universities and colleges like Harvard, Columbia and MIT, avoided taking a political side, said Jack Levy, a specialist on the causes of war at Rutgers University.

"We shared a certain type of world view, a so-called realist view, in which we think of the world and foreign policy in terms of national security, with less emphasis on ideology and things like that," Levy said. "It was for U.S., self-interest, national security concerns that we were opposed to the war. It was not opposition based primarily on moral concerns.

"That charge (of liberalism) certainly didn't apply to our objections. No one could accuse anyone in that group of not having a fairly hard-headed view of the national interest."

The ad urged the United States to concentrate on al-Qaida and stated, in part, "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state."

Levy and Silverstein both point out that many academics took the opposite tack, further clouding decision-making four years ago.

Among those not swayed by Hyer and his peers were the members of Utah's congressional delegation, who got to see the opinion piece weeks before it ran in the newspaper.

Responding in letters to the professors, Sen. Bob Bennett and Reps. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, defended the votes they cast for war.

Cannon wrote that wrestling with his vote led to some of "the most agonizing moments of my tenure," and that "I suppose I will wonder about that discussion, no matter what the outcome, to my dying day."

He contended the debate in Washington included all of the points made by the BYU professors, with answers from those with contrary views, and he asked the professors "to recognize (the decision) was not taken carelessly, unfeelingly, or unthinkingly."

The professors, who said their views did not represent BYU or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns it, also correctly predicted the war would have unintended consequences.

One is how it changed politics in Arab countries, said co-author Wade Jacoby, an expert on international security and Europe.

"For years, Islamic radicals have lived on the frontiers and fringes of political worlds, the backwaters," Jacoby said. "Now, they're in the heart of the Arab world. It's not good for the United States, it's not good for our Arab friends and it's not good for ordinary citizens of these countries."

Equally troubling is the reaction of America's allies in Europe and elsewhere.

"Sometimes they used to exaggerate our vices and sometimes they used to exaggerate our virtues," Jacoby said. "This takes their breath away. They see us violating our own moral code."

Abu Ghraib was another unforeseen event that further damaged America's reputation.

"We were a city on a hill," Bowen said. "Our principles of human rights and civil rights were a beacon. For us to be shown to be empty ... ."

The professors contend the war also led to a dramatic rise of Iranian influence, allowed the Taliban to reassert itself and created the possibility of a disastrous destabilization of Pakistan.

They also worry that as the war drags on, Americans will become increasingly isolationist, unwilling to back the use of U.S. military power in other places when it is needed.

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One sign of Iraq fatigue: At the start of the war, more than 700 journalists were embedded with U.S. troops. Now there are about a dozen, Jacoby said.

Four years ago, the professors say other faculty and students on campus argued with them. Now discussion has vanished.

"A feature of the debate is how it's trailed off," Jacoby said. "The first phase was an angry phase: 'How dare you?' Then there was a second, prolonged phase of real debate with people who respected us. That lasted until about 14 months ago, and then the fun went out of it. Now, the third phase is stunned silence.

"People who support, who admire, who like the president, just want to change the subject."

Darren Hawkins, who specializes at BYU in human rights, foreign policy and democratization, said the only debate he sees now is whether going to Iraq was a bad idea at the start or a good idea poorly executed.

"I think it was a bad strategy terribly executed," Hawkins said. The professors agree America should remain in Iraq until the region is stable.

Comment on this story "We don't have analogies here," Hyer said. "This isn't Vietnam. This isn't Korea. This isn't World War II. This isn't Lebanon. Every step ahead is a step into the dark."



E-mail: twalch@desnews.com