Overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 achieved important American strategic objectives. Our broad international coalition accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world. Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam’s defeat, these facts are indisputable.
Nonetheless, relentless hostility by the war’s opponents now threaten to overwhelm, in the public mind, the clear merits of eliminating Iraq’s Ba’athist dictatorship. Leaving the critics unanswered, combined with the utterly erroneous policy conclusions they have derived, will only lead to more serious problems down the road. Let us consider a few of the prevailing myths:
1. Iraq is worse off now than under Saddam. This charge could come only from people with a propensity to admire totalitarianism. Iraq has certainly gone through a hard decade, and its future is far from secure, but that uncertainty derives from long-standing historical tensions and animosities among its major confessional and ethnic groups which were suppressed under Saddam. One might as well pine for Stalin or Tito. Iraq’s inherent defects as an artificial nation may yet bring it to grief, but not because of the US-led invasion. To the contrary, Iraqis now have a chance, denied them under Saddam, to forge a new society, as Germany and Japan did after World War II. But we didn’t wage war after Pearl Harbor to do nation-building for our enemies. And, in any event, the issue was never about making life better for Iraqis, but about ensuring a safer world for America and its allies.
2. Wars to impose democracy invariably fail. This generalization, whether true or not, is fundamentally irrelevant to Iraq. While President George W Bush and others sought to justify military action after Saddam’s downfall as helping to spread democracy, such arguments played no measurable role in the decision to end Saddam’s regime. Obviously, most administration officials expected the Ba’ath party would be replaced by representative government, but that was not the motive, should not have been, and will not be in future interventions.
3. Bush lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Ridiculous. Anyone who has ever served in the US government knows how hard it is to keep anything secret, including our most vital national-security information. The idea that a conspiracy to lie about Saddam’s WMD capabilities could, to this day, have kept its machinations secret, in whole or in part, smacks of paranoia.
America and its allies, especially the UK, believed, for example, that Iraq had stocks of chemical weapons not because of espionage, but because of Saddam’s own 1991 declarations concerning such weapons pursuant to the Security Council’s cease-fire resolution. Iraq claimed it had eliminated its weapons of mass destruction, but refused to provide UN weapons inspectors any information to corroborate those claims. Virtually every objective observer concluded that Iraq was lying about destroying its chemical weapons, and therefore still had large and threatening capabilities. You can search the record in vain for major voices claiming, before the 2003 war, that Iraq didn’t have chemical weapons.
The fact is that Saddam Hussein, with or without actual WMD, was a strategic threat to peace and security in the Middle East and globally. Once free of UN economic sanctions and weapons inspectors, which 10 years ago he was very close to achieving, he would have immediately returned to ambitious WMD programs.
4. US military intervention was far more aggressive than was necessary. Not at all. The most cogent criticism of the 2003 action against Saddam is that it was required because we failed in 1991 to pursue our interests to their appropriate conclusion. Had we liberated Kuwait and then marched to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam, the world might have been spared considerable agony, and Iraq would actually have had a greater chance to build a peaceful, democratic society before the rise of al-Qaida and Islamic radicalism took their toll. We can obviously never know the truth, but the lesson for Washington is not to stop short just because of criticism from the international chattering classes.
Ironically, the more accurate criticism of US policy is essentially the opposite of the left’s conventional wisdom: our inconstancy has too often caused us to stop short before achieving objectives that were both desirable and obtainable. In Iraq, for example, twice in just 10 years, we had to mobilize international coalitions and powerful military forces to deal with the same basic threat, namely Saddam’s unrestrained aggressiveness toward his neighbors. Similarly in Afghanistan, after helping the mujahedeen force a humiliating Soviet withdrawal and contribute to the USSR’s collapse, we turned away in the 1990’s and Taliban took power. After overthrowing the Taliban-al Qaida clique ruling Afghanistan, we are poised to turn away again, with every prospect of Taliban returning to power. And in Iran, we have watched the nuclear threat grow for twenty years while missing repeated opportunities to do something about it.
5. Iran is more powerful today than if Saddam been left in power. This variation on the previous myth ignores the reality America confronted in 2003. Had Saddam been removed in 1991, the threat of Iran’s influence might have been mooted before Tehran’s nuclear threat grew to its present level of menace. After Saddam’s overthrow, the United States should have turned its attention to the regimes in Iran and Syria. Had we encouraged internal opposition to topple both Assad and the ayatollahs ten years ago, much as if we had removed Saddam in 1991, the Middle East environment today would indeed be very different.
If Obama has his way in Washington’s ongoing policy and budgetary debates, America will be withdrawing around the world and reducing its military capacity. This is what opponents of the 2003 Iraq war have long professed to want. If they actually get their wishes, it won’t be long before they start complaining about it. You heard it here first.
This article was originally published by the Guardian.