Why Did We Invade Iraq?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

On the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the back-and-forth recriminations continue, but in all the “not me” defenses, we have forgotten, over the ensuing decade, the climate of 2003 and why we invaded in the first place. The war was predicated on six suppositions.

1. 9/11 and the 1991 Gulf War. The Bush administration made the argument that in the post-9/11 climate there should be a belated reckoning with Saddam Hussein. He had continued to sponsor terrorism, had over the years invaded or attacked four of his neighbors, and had killed tens of thousands of his own people. He was surely more a threat to the region and to his own people than either Bashar Assad or Moammar Qaddafi was eight years later.

In this context, the end of the 1991 Gulf War loomed large: Its denouement had led not to the removal of a defeated Saddam, but to mass slaughter of Kurds and Shiites. Twelve years of no-fly zones had seen periods of conflict, and the enforcement of those zones no longer enjoyed much, if any, international support — suggesting that Saddam would soon be able to reclaim his regional stature. Many of the architects or key players in the 1991 war were once again in power in Washington, and many of them had in the ensuing decade become remorseful about the ending of the prior conflict. The sense of the need to correct a mistake became all the more potent after 9/11. Most Americans have now forgotten that by 2003, most of the books published on the 1991 war were critical, faulting the unnecessary overkill deployment; the inclusion of too many allies, which hampered US choices; the shakedown of allies to help defray the cost; the realist and inhumane ending to the conflict; the ongoing persecution of Shiites, Marsh Arabs, and Kurds; and the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power.

Since there was no direct connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam, take away the security apprehensions following 9/11, and George Bush probably would not have taken the risk of invading Iraq. By the same token, had the 1991 Gulf War ended differently, or had the UN and the NATO allies continued to participate fully in the no-fly zones and the containment of Iraq, there likewise would not have been a 2003 invasion. The Iraq War was predicated, rightly or wrongly, on the notion that the past war with Saddam had failed and containment would fail, and that after 9/11 it was the proper time to end a sponsor of global terrorism that should have been ended in 1991 — a decision that, incidentally, would save Kurdistan and allow it to turn into one of the most successful and pro-American regions in the Middle East.

2. Afghanistan. A second reason was the rapid victory in the war in Afghanistan immediately following 9/11. Scholars and pundits had warned of disaster on the eve of the October 2001 invasion. Even if it was successful in destroying the rule of the Taliban, any chance of postwar stability was declared impossible, given the “graveyard of empires” reputation of that part of the world. But the unforeseen eight-week war that with ease removed the Taliban, and the nonviolent manner in which the pro-Western Hamid Karzai later assumed power, misled the administration and the country into thinking Iraq would be a far less challenging prospect — especially given Iraq’s humiliating defeat in 1991, which had contrasted sharply with the Soviet failure in Afghanistan.

After all, in contrast to Afghanistan, Iraq had accessible ports, good weather, flat terrain, a far more literate populace, and oil — facts that in the ensuing decade, ironically, would help to explain why David Petraeus finally achieved success there in a manner not true of his later efforts in Afghanistan.

Since the US had seemingly succeeded in two months where the Soviets had abjectly failed in a decade, and given that we already had once trounced Saddam, it seemed likely that Iraq would follow the success of Afghanistan. History is replete with examples of such misreadings of the past: The French in 1940 believed that they could hold off the Germans as they had for four years in the First World War; the Germans believed the Russians would be as weak at home in 1941 as they had seemed sluggish abroad in Poland and Finland in 1939–40. Had Afghanistan proved as difficult at the very beginning of the war as it did at the end, the US probably would not have invaded Iraq.

3. Everyone on board. A third reason was the overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, in the media, and among the public — for reasons well beyond WMD. In October 2002, both houses of Congress passed 23 writs justifying the removal of Saddam, an update of Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Senators Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid were among those who not only enthusiastically called for Saddam’s removal, but also warned of intelligence estimates of Saddam’s WMD arsenals. Pundits on both sides, from Thomas Friedman to George Will, likewise supported the invasion, which on the eve of the war enjoyed over 70 percent approval from the American people. Bush, in that regard, had achieved what Clinton had not on the eve of the Serbian War — he had obtained a joint resolution of support from Congress before attacking, and had taken nearly a year in concerted (though failed) attempts to win UN approval for Saddam’s removal. Had Bush not gone to Congress, had he made no attempt to go to the UN, had he had no public support, or had he been opposed by the liberal press, he probably would not have invaded Iraq.

4. WMD. A fourth reason was the specter of WMD. While the Bush administration might easily have cited the persuasive writs of the bipartisan resolutions — genocide against the Kurds, Shiites, and Marsh Arabs; bounties for suicide bombers; sanctuary for terrorists; attempts to kill a former US president; violations of UN sanctions and resolutions; etc. — it instead fixated on supposedly unimpeachable intelligence about WMD, a “slam dunk,” according to CIA director George Tenet, a judgment with which most Middle Eastern governments and European intelligence agencies agreed. This concentration on WMD would prove a critical political mistake. Note in passing that the eventual public furor over missing WMD stockpiles (although there is solid evidence that Saddam was perilously close to WMD deployment) did not fully develop with the initial knowledge of that intelligence failure, but only with the mounting violence after a seemingly brilliant victory over Saddam.

The missing vast stockpiles of WMD then became the source of the convenient slogan “Bush lied, thousands died.” Yet had the reconstruction gone well, we would surely not have heard something like “Bush lied — and so there was no need, after all, to depose Saddam and foster consensual government in Iraq.”

The Bush administration apparently believed that, without the worry over WMD, the other writs would not generate enough public urgency for preemption, and thus it would not have invaded Iraq. Note that when Barack Obama talks of “red lines” and “game changers” in Syria that might justify US preemptive action, he is not referring to 70,000 dead, the horrific human-rights record of Bashar Assad, Syria’s past effort to become nuclear, or even the plight of millions of Syrian refugees, but the supposition that Syria is planning to use chemical or biological weapons — a crime Saddam had often committed against his own people, and one that inflames public opinion in the West. As a footnote, we will probably not know the full story of WMD in the region until the Assad regime is gone from Syria — although we are starting to hear the same worries about such Syrian weapons from the Obama administration as we did of Iraqi weapons during the Bush presidency.

5. Nation-building. A fifth reason was the notion of reformulating Iraq, so that instead of being the problem in the region it would become a solution. Since the 1991 war had not ended well, because of a failure to finish off the regime and stay on, and since the aid to the insurgents against the Soviets in Afghanistan had been followed by US neglect and in time the rise of the Taliban, so, in reaction, this time the US was determined to stay. We forget now the liberal consensus that the rise of the Taliban and the survival of Saddam were supposed reflections of past US callousness — something not to be repeated in Iraq.

Finally, America would do the right thing and create a consensual government that might ensure not only the end of Saddam’s atrocities, but also, by its very constitutional existence, pressure on the Gulf monarchies to liberalize and cease their support for terrorism of the sort that had killed 3,000 Americans. While there may well have been neo-cons who believed that the Iraqi democracy would be followed by a true Arab Spring of US-fostered democracy sweeping the Middle East — something akin to the original good blowback of Pakistan’s detaining Dr. Khan, Qaddafi’s surrendering his WMD arsenal, and Syria’s leaving Lebanon, before all this dissipated with Fallujah — most of the Bush administration policymakers believed that democracy was not their first choice, but their last choice, for postwar reconstruction, given that everything else had been tried after past conflicts and just as often failed.

Administration officials were not hoping for Carmel, but for something akin to post-Milosevic Serbia or post-Noriega Panama, as opposed to Somalia or post-Soviet Afghanistan. Note well: Had George Bush simply announced in advance that he would be leaving Iraq as soon as he deposed Saddam, or that he planned to install a less violent relative of Saddam’s to keep order as we departed, Congress probably would not have authorized an invasion of Iraq in the first place. The Iraq War was sold partly on the liberal idealism of at last doing the right thing — after not having done so previously against Saddam or following the Soviets in Afghanistan.

6. Oil! Sixth and last was the issue of oil. Had Iraq been Rwanda, the Bush administration would not have invaded. The key here, however, is to remember the war was not a matter of “blood for oil,” given that the Bush administration had no intention of taking Iraqi oil — a fact proven by the transparent and non-US postwar development of the Iraqi oil and gas fields.

Instead, oil was an issue because Iraq’s oil revenues meant that Saddam would always have the resources to foment trouble in the region, would always be difficult to remove through internal opposition, and would always use petrodollar influence to undermine UN resolutions, seek to spike world oil prices, or distort Western solidarity, as the French collusion with Saddam attested. Imagine North Korea with Iraq’s gas and oil reserves: The problem it poses for its neighbors would be greatly amplified and far more likely addressed. Had Iraq simply been a resource-poor Yemen or Jordan, or landlocked without key access to the Persian Gulf, the US probably would not have invaded.

Ten Years Later

The invasion of Iraq was a perfect storm predicated on all these suppositions — the absence of any one of which might well have postponed or precluded the invasion.

That we have forgotten or ignored most of these causes stems not just from the subsequent terrible cost of the war. Instead, our amnesia is self-induced, and derives from the fact that 70 percent of the American people and most of the liberal media commentators supported the invasion, came to reverse that support, and remain hurt or furious at someone other than themselves for their own change of heart — one predicated not on the original conditions of going to war, but on the later unexpected costs in blood and treasure that might have been avoided.

Given that less than a third of the American people initially opposed the war, the subsequent acrimony centered on whether it was better for the nation to give up and depart after 2004, or to stay and stabilize the country. Ultimately the president decided that the only thing worse than fighting a bad war was losing one.

©2013 Victor Davis Hanson

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