Iraq: The Real Story

Donald Trump’s account of the Iraq War is all wrong. Why aren’t his Republican opponents saying so?

Donald Trump constantly brings up Iraq to remind voters that Jeb Bush supported his brother’s war, while Trump, alone of the Republican candidates, supposedly opposed it well before it started.

That is a flat-out lie. There is no evidence that Trump opposed the war before the March 20, 2003 invasion. Like most Americans, he supported the invasion and said just that very clearly in interviews. And like most Americans, Trump quickly turned on a once popular intervention — but only when the postwar occupation was beginning to cost too much in blood and treasure. Trump’s serial invocations of the war are good reminders of just how mythical Iraq has now become.

We need to recall a few facts. Bill Clinton bombed Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) on December 16 to 19, 1998, without prior congressional or U.N. approval. As Clinton put it at the time, our armed forces wanted “to attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors. Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States, and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world. Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons.” At the time of Clinton’s warning about Iraq’s WMD capability, George W. Bush was a relatively obscure Texas governor.

Just weeks earlier, Clinton had signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law, after the legislation passed Congress on a House vote of 360 to 38 and the Senate unanimously. The act formally called for the removal of Saddam Hussein, a transition to democracy for Iraq, and a forced end to Saddam’s WMD program. As President Clinton had also warned when signing the act — long before the left-wing construction of neo-con bogeymen and “Bush lied, thousands died” sloganeering — without such an act, Saddam Hussein “will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he’ll use the arsenal.” Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, often voiced warnings about Saddam’s aggression and his possession of deadly stocks of WMD (e.g., “Iraq is a long way from [here], but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face”). Indeed, most felt that the U.S. had been too lax in allowing Saddam to gas the Kurds when it might have prevented such mass murdering.

In October 2002, President Bush asked for the consent of Congress — unlike the Clinton resort to force in the Balkans and the later Obama bombing in Libya, both by executive action — before using arms to reify existing American policy. Both the Senate (with a majority of Democrats voting in favor) and the House overwhelmingly approved 23 writs calling for Saddam’s forced removal. The causes of action included Iraq’s violation of well over a dozen U.N. resolutions, Saddam’s harboring of international terrorists (including those who had tried and failed to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993), his plot to murder former president George H. W. Bush, his violations of no-fly zones, his bounties to suicide bombers on the West Bank, his genocidal policies against the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and a host of other transgressions. Only a few of the causes of action were directly related to weapons of mass destruction.

Go back and review speeches on the floor of Congress in support of the Bush administration’s using force. Some of the most muscular were the arguments of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Harry Reid, and Chuck Schumer. Pundits as diverse as Al Franken, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, David Remnick, Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, and Fareed Zakaria all wrote or spoke passionately about the need to remove the genocidal Saddam Hussein. All voiced their humanitarian concerns about finally stopping Saddam’s genocidal wars against the helpless. The New York Times estimated that 1 million had died violently because of Saddam’s governance. And all would soon damn those with whom they once agreed.

No liberal supporters of the war ever alleged that the Bush administration had concocted WMD evidence ex nihilo in Iraq — and for four understandable reasons: one, the Clinton administration and the United Nations had already made the case about Saddam Hussein’s dangerous possession of WMD stockpiles; two, the CIA had briefed congressional leaders in September and October 2002 on WMD independently and autonomously from its White House briefings (a “slam-dunk case”), as CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, later reiterated; three, WMD were only a small concern, at least in the congressional authorization for war, which for the most part dealt with Iraq’s support for terrorism in the post–9/11 climate, violation of the U.N. mandates, and serial genocidal violence directed at Iraq’s own people and neighboring countries; and, four, the invasion was initially successful and its results seemed to have justified it.

The WMD issue was largely a postbellum mechanism of blaming conspiracies rather than anyone’s own judgment when violence flared. Did the disappearance of WMD stocks really nullify all 23 congressional writs?

Support for the invasion reached its apex not before the war but directly at its conclusion, when polls in April 2003 revealed approval ratings between 70 and 90 percent, owing to Saddam’s sudden downfall, the relatively rapid end to the fighting, and the avoidance of catastrophic American casualties.

In late April 2003, initial worry about the absence of WMD stockpiles was soon noted — after all, the 2004 presidential primaries were less than a year away — but largely dismissed, given that Congress had sanctioned the war on a variety of grounds that had nothing to do with WMD, and it was not clear where or how known stockpiles had mysteriously disappeared, after their prior demonstrable use by Saddam. (Did Clinton get them all in his 1998 Desert Fox campaign? Did Saddam himself stealthily destroy them? Did he send out false intelligence about them to create deterrence? Or were they moved to Syria — where WMD turned up later during the Obama “red-line” controversy?)

Only as the postwar violence spiked in June and July 2003 did the fallback position arise of having been cajoled by “bogus” intelligence and thus having been “misled” into going along with the “Bush and Cheney” agenda. Had the occupation gone as well as the initial war, missing WMD would have been noted in the context of there having been roughly 20 other writs for going into Iraq.

A veritable circus of opportunistic protestations followed as violence continued. Barack Obama — who had opposed the war in 2003 but, as an Illinois state senator, was not in a position to vote against it — predicated his 2008 presidential candidacy on pulling out all troops. As a senator in 2007, he opposed the surge. He predicted that it would not only fail, but also make things worse.

When the surge made things far better, Obama dropped most mentions of Iraq from his campaign website. He certainly never referred to his confessions during his Senate campaign of 2004 that he then had had no major disagreements with Bush’s policies during the postwar occupation (e.g., “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage”). Nor did he recall that, also in 2004, he confessed to having no idea whether he would have voted for the war. (“I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don’t know.”) Obama seemed to suggest that the Senate had its own intelligence avenues apparently separate from the Bush–Chaney nexus.

The surge engineered by General David Petraeus worked so well that Iraq was not much of an issue in the 2008 general election. President-elect Barack Obama entered office with a quiet Iraq. For example, about 60 American soldiers died in 2010 in combat-related operations in Iraq — or roughly 4 percent of all U.S. military deaths that year (1,485), the vast majority of these due to non-combat causes (motor-vehicle and training accidents, non-combat violence, suicide, drugs, illness, etc.). Although Obama had once stated that Iraq was the unwise war (in comparison to the wise Afghan war that he supported during the 2008 campaign), the relative post-surge quiet had changed somewhat, for a third time, popular attitudes about the war. Indeed, Afghanistan by 2010 was the problematic conflict, Iraq the apparently successful occupation.

No wonder, then, that Vice President Joe Biden in February 2010 claimed that Iraq was so successful that it might well become one of the administration’s “greatest achievements.” Obama himself was eager, given the apparent calm, to pull out all U.S. peacekeepers before the 2012 election. A mostly quiet Iraq, contrasted with the escalating violence in Afghanistan and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, apparently made that withdrawal possible — so much so that Obama declared: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

Suddenly the Iraq War was no longer “Bush’s war.” Instead, it was referred to in terms of “we” — and was seen as a far preferable scenario to the violence in either Afghanistan or the newly bombed Libya.

Predictably, the departure of several thousand U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq allowed the Shiite partisan Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to renege on his promises of equitable treatment for all Iraqi factions. Iran sensed the void and sent in Shiite operatives. The extremism of the Arab Spring finally reached Iraq. ISIS was the new Islamic terrorist hydra head that replaced the al-Qaeda head, which had been lopped off in Iraq during the surge.

Iraq went from “self-reliant” to being the nexus of Middle East unrest. All President Obama’s euphemisms for ISIS violence did not mask the reality of the disintegration of Iraq. WMD mysteriously reappeared as a national-security issue, but now in Assad’s Syria — and to such a degree that an anguished President Obama (“We have been very clear to the Assad regime . . . that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”) himself threatened to bomb Assad if he dared re-employ WMD (Assad did, and we did not bomb him). No one asked how or where Assad had gained access to such plentiful chemical-weapon stocks — other than the administration’s later insistence that Syria’s use of chlorine gas did not really constitute WMD usage.

The truth is that, before Bush entered office, most Americans had been convinced by the Clinton administration and the Congress that Saddam Hussein was a danger that had to be addressed. Bush sent in troops because Clinton’s prior bombing, Saddam’s violations of U.N. resolutions, and over a decade of porous no-fly zones had left Americans fearing that Saddam was uncontainable. The invasion was brilliantly conducted, and polls and politics both revealed consensus on that point. Yet securing Iraq was poorly managed from summer 2003 until autumn 2007. And polls, two elections, and political reinventions certainly illustrated that fact as well.

It is legitimate to change opinions about a war or to rue a flawed occupation. But it is not ethical to deny prior positions or invent reasons why what once seemed prudent later seemed reckless.

Finally, Korea offers some bases for comparison and elucidation. Harry Truman sent in U.S. troop reinforcements in August 1950, in an optional war to stop Communist aggression and recreate deterrence in the region. He acted with the approval of the American public (near 80 percent approval), with U.N. sanction, and, at least in budgetary terms, with agreement from the U.S. Congress.

However, poor planning, ill-preparedness due to the rapid disarmament after World War II, the megalomania of General Douglas MacArthur, the November invasion by the Chinese Red Army, nuclear saber-rattling by the Soviet Union, and soaring U.S. casualties (by summer 1953 reaching over 36,000 deaths and over 130,000 wounded and missing) made the war a bloody quagmire and roundly detested — with over 50 percent disapproval. Even the genius of General Matthew Ridgway, who saved South Korea from ruin in a brilliant 100-day campaign in late 1950 and early 1951, could not regain solid public support for the intervention.

The Korean War may have saved millions of Koreans from a Stalinist nightmare, but it ruined the Truman administration (Truman left office in January 1953 with a 23 percent approval rating, far worse than George W. Bush’s departing 33 percent). Popular anger ensured the election of Republican Dwight David Eisenhower.

But despite all the opportunistic campaign rhetoric, the newly elected President Eisenhower more or less followed Truman’s policies. By July 1953 he had achieved an armistice. And by keeping sizable U.S. deployments of peacekeepers in place, he also ensured what would become a long evolution to democracy in South Korea and the country’s current dynamic economy. Had Eisenhower, in Obama-like worry over his 1956 reelection bid, yanked out all U.S. peacekeepers in December 1955, and blamed the resulting debacle on his Democratic predecessor (“Truman’s War”), while writing off the North Korean aggressors as jayvees, we can imagine a quick North Korean absorption of the South, with the sort of death and chaos we are now seeing in Iraq.

Korea today would be unified under the unhinged Kim Jong-un regime, with twice its present resources. Samsung and Kia would be pipedreams, and we would still be arguing over Truman’s folly, the futility of nation-building, the loss of Korea, and the needless sacrifice of 36,000 American lives. No one knows what effects a rapid U.S. flight in 1954 or 1955, the implosion of South Korea, and a Chinese–North Korean victory would have had on the larger course of the ongoing Cold War in Asia, especially in relationship to neighboring Japan and Taiwan. But we can imagine that the South China Sea in 1956 might have resembled something akin to the mess of the current Eastern Mediterranean.

We can surely argue about Iraq, but we must not airbrush away facts. The mystery of the current Iraq fantasy is not that a prevaricating Donald Trump misrepresents the war in the fashion of Democratic senators and liberal pundits who once eagerly supported it, but that his Republican opponents so easily let him do it.

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