Public opinion veers with every change in current conditions in Iraq.
Probable Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush got himself into trouble by sort of, sort of not, answering the question whether he would have supported going into Iraq in 2003 — had he known then what we know now.
Republican candidates vied in attacking Bush’s initial confusion about answering the question. Most reiterated that they most certainly would not have invaded Iraq, regardless of what they know now or thought they knew then. Politically, it appears to be wiser to damn the decision to invade Iraq and to forget the circumstances that prompted the war — and the later political environment that ended the American presence.
Unfortunately, our country seems to be suffering from collective amnesia.We apparently have forgotten a number of crucial points:
1. Who authorized the war?
The war was pushed by the Bush administration, but it was authorized by both Houses of Congress, with a majority of Democrats (29 to 21) joining Republicans in the Senate (49 to 1). The authorizations of October 2002 sailed through, with especially enthusiastic rhetoric from Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Harry Reid, and Jay Rockefeller, who all had the same access to U.S. and foreign intelligence that the Bush administration did.
2. Just WMD?
The war was not just about WMD. Congress was on record as supporting 23 writs for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force, and at least 20 of them had little if anything to do with WMD. They included Iraq’s noncompliance with the 1991 ceasefire agreement; its “brutal repression of its civilian population,” which included genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs; its 1993 assassination attempt on former President George H. W. Bush; its firing on coalition aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones; its “continu[ing] to aid and harbor other international terrorist organizations,” including one of the architects of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; its bounties to families of suicide bombers; its aggression against its neighbors — and on and on.
Again, the vast majority of these “whereas” clauses had nothing to do with WMD, but sought, in a post-9/11 landscape, to reify Bill Clinton’s Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Clinton’s neoconservative resolution had made it the official policy of the United States to removeSaddam Hussein’s regime and promote a democratic replacement.
The war was not just about WMD. Congress was on record as supporting 23 writs for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force.
No one has suggested that the Marsh Arabs were not slaughtered, or that the plot against George H. W. Bush was phony, or that Saddam did not subsidize suicide bombers or harbor international terrorists, or violate U.N. agreements. Instead, for some strange reason, the war was deemed fraudulent because a few of the 23 resolutions proved to be exaggerated fears. A more honest analysis for critics of the war would be that going into Iraq was mistaken because the 20-plus congressional writs were never worth it — not just because WMD did not appear in readily deployable stockpiles.
3. Why 2002–03?
What immediately prompted the invasion plans of 2003 was not just the nation-building hopes of neoconservatives, but a number of recent developments in a post-9/11 climate. The sanctions were breaking down. The oil-for-food embargo was collapsing, and in any case was riddled with fraud and insider deals. Sweetheart Iraqi oil concessions with Russia and France had made it nearly impossible for the U.N. to be sympathetic to American efforts to ratchet up the pressure on the Hussein regime.
Our allies had tired of over a decade of no-fly zones, and the burden had shifted almost entirely to the Americans. After 9/11, the focus had turned to rogue nations that had used their oil wealth to subsidize terrorism, war, and genocide. Saddam’s body counts easily trumped those of the Assad regime and of the Qaddafi dictatorship. The former autocracy was later threatened with red lines and ordered to abdicate by Barack Obama; the latter was removed by force without either U.N. sanction or congressional approval. Both Syria and Libya are now wastelands and incubators of terrorism.
Why, however, in 2002 did Republicans so overwhelmingly support the war, along with Democratic senators and representatives, liberal pundits, and Democratic public intellectuals? The fear of WMD, of course, was genuine, as well as anger over Saddam’s support for terrorists, his practice of genocide, and his mockery of sanctions. The argument that the intelligence about WMD was massaged and exaggerated is problematic given that foreign leaders, with their own independent sources of knowledge, were wary of the invasion precisely because of fears that Saddam would use WMD. Stocks of WMD even today continue to turn up both in Iraq and in Syria; some may have fallen into the hands of ISIS, suggesting that the full story of Saddam’s chemical and biological arsenals still has never been fully told. Just recently President Obama was forced to deny that chlorine gas — which is being used by Syria today, and which proved so deadly in the World War I battles of Ypres and Caporetto — is a weapon of mass destruction.
The sanctions were breaking down. The oil-for-food embargo was collapsing, and in any case was riddled with fraud and insider deals.
In addition, the debate in 2002 over the impending war came amid the recent euphoria over the removal of the Taliban, in which a small U.S. team of specialized forces, aided by air power, had in a matter of weeks forced the Taliban out of Afghanistan and installed a democratic alternative, while suffering few casualties. Hamid Karzai was at the time being heralded as a statesman and a new sort of democratic Islamic leader. Add in the easy victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991, and few politicians or pundits wanted to be left out of what seemed the probability of another quick victory and successful transition to constitutional government, which might offer a way of solving the problem of Islamic extremism without dealing with either oil-fed murderous dictators or anti-Western Islamic theocrats. Afghanistan, “graveyard of empires” — landlocked, mountainous, and without friendly neighbors, oil, or an industrial base — had seemed by popular consensus a far more difficult proposition than Iraq.
4. The good/bad war
If tranquility had followed the brilliant 2003 removal of Saddam, and U.S. casualties had stayed below perhaps 500 killed (some pundits had predicted thousands of fatalities as the likely cost of removing Saddam), the drafters of the 2002 resolution would have been vying for acclaim. Unfortunately, unrest, chaos, and high American casualties were the norm by 2004, and they framed the election campaigns of 2004, 2006, and 2008. During those campaigns, almost all prior Democratic and liberal supporters of the war, and many Republican and conservative supporters as well, reinvented themselves as original skeptics, as public support for the intervention eventually crashed below 30 percent.
The unpopular but eventually quite successful surge of 2007–08 salvaged the idea of creating an Iraqi government that could bring stability to the country. By the summer of 2008, the Iraq war was no longer the presidential campaign’s hinge issue. Most of Barack Obama’s original calls to bring home all U.S. troops in the spring of 2008 had been scrubbed from his website. No candidates talked any more of the war as “lost” or the surge as “failed.” The New York Times did not run any more “General Betray Us” ads. Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan were fading from the anti-war spotlight.
Unrest, chaos, and high American casualties were the norm by 2004, and they framed the election campaigns of 2004, 2006, and 2008.
While it is often said that Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war had fueled Barack Obama’s primary victories, in truth a quieting Iraq was no longer much of an issue by the later primaries of 2008. Moreover, it was the financial collapse of September 2008, not support for the war, that had doomed the presidential bid of war-hawk John McCain, who, until the Goldman Sachs/Lehman Brothers implosion, had enjoyed a 3-to-4-percentage-point lead over Barack Obama.
By 2010 Vice President Joe Biden was no longer talking of trisecting Iraq, but instead claiming that a now quiet, post-surge Iraq was likely to prove the Obama administration’s “greatest achievement” — apparently because of the emergence of a fairly stable government. At the end of 2011, President Obama, as a candidate up for reelection, bragged that America was leaving behind “a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.”
In truth, the American experience with Iraq went through a succession of phases and assessments, predicated on whatever at the time were the current American casualty rates, the status of the Iraqi government’s ability to govern the country, the price of oil, and the long-term outlook for the region. From April to July 2003, the American people and its politicians and pundits hailed a brilliant American victory that had removed a monster and ushered in new hope for the Iraqi people, while prompting Moammar Qaddafi to give up his WMD, the Assad regime to leave Lebanon, and even Pakistan to jail Dr. Khan for a while.
From August 2003 to December 2006, high American casualties and growing chaos in Iraq caused widespread criticism of the intervention as a second Vietnam. That perception changed again somewhat, thanks to the surge in 2007 and 2008, as American losses began to drop, the insurgency was crushed, and the Iraqi government began to prove viable. From 2009 to 2011 the Obama administration played down its prior opposition to the Iraq war, even as it wished to take credit for securing the country and (unwisely) removing all U.S. troops in time for the 2012 presidential election. But by 2012 the image of Iraq had changed again, as both ISIS and Iranian forces rushed into the vacuum left by the foolish departure of all U.S. peacekeeping forces, and the country fell into chaos in a fashion resembling the messes in Syria and Libya.
5. Wars change.
In other words, Iraq was by turns a brilliant victory, a debacle, a solvable problem, a great achievement, and an ISIS-infested mess — again depending on the extent of American losses, the trajectory of the Iraqi government, and the particular election cycle in the United States.
Unfortunately, lots of wars go through such stages. Korea was blasted as a policy lapse after the humiliation at Pusan. Then suddenly it became a brilliant intervention after Inchon — only to become the foolhardy disaster on the Yalu. Then by January 1951 it had become a Truman quagmire — until March 1951 and the inspired recovery under General Matthew Ridgway. Then the stalemate at the DMZ starting in May 1951 made Korea politically a controversial and costly impasse until the armistice of summer 1953. The Korean War was debated for the next 40 years as either a waste of blood and treasure or a costly but wise investment in the stand against Communist aggression.
By the late 1990s, the emergence of the South Korean tiger economy with new global brands such as Kia and Samsung, the gradual downsizing of the American presence, and the creation of real democracy — and the contrast with the nightmare in North Korea — seemed to have convinced historians that the war in fact had been worth it, despite fatalities that were more than seven times greater than those in Iraq. That assessment may change again and prompt remorse about an opportunity lost, should North Korea ever launch a nuclear-tipped missile against the U.S. or its Asian allies.
Removing Saddam was a textbook operation; the effort to quell the ensuing chaos was a textbook case of mismanagement and incompetence.
Had the U.S. Congress not cut off all aid to South Vietnam in 1974–75, and had the Saigon government survived and followed the evolutionary path of South Korea, with a Saigon now much like Seoul, our assessments of the Vietnam War might be closer to those of the Korean War, for better or worse. The Allied decision in April 1945 not to go into eastern Germany and take Berlin was seen by 1946 as a foolish missed opportunity that had ceded much of Eastern Europe to the Soviet gulag state: A war to liberate Europe that we had entered in 1941 had by 1945 ensured the subjugation of Eastern Europe. Yet in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ike’s decision to keep to the Allied plan and stay out of Berlin seemed less controversial, as the Soviet monstrosity fell by its own weight.
We should expect lots of false information and political reinvention about Iraq during the campaigns this year and next — as candidates readjust their positions to fit public opinion, itself predicated on impressions of present-day Iraq and revisionist analyses of the invasion, surge, and occupation.
There are constants, of course, that don’t change: Removing Saddam was a textbook operation; the effort to quell the ensuing chaos was a textbook case of mismanagement and incompetence. Yet the final assessment on the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein in large part hinges on whether what followed was a dramatic improvement — in terms both of U.S. strategic interest and of the humanitarian effort to help the Iraqi people — that justified the terrible American investment. That assessment since 2003 has changed frequently, but most recently in a negative direction after the foolhardy complete 2011 pullout and the logical rise of ISIS.
22 thoughts on “Were We Right to Take Out Saddam?”
The real error was the post-war appointment of a Civil US Governor.
Successful rebuilding of Iraq should have been a Four Star General who was Middle East oriented and widely respected. The United States was successful in both Germany and Japan creating strong democratic governments, over time using this model.
As always, you summarize wonderfully the ups & downs of how our perceptions toward Iraq have changed repeatedly over the years, except for your final comment of our President’s “foolhardily” pulling out all our troops in 2011. If my memory serves me correctly, he was told by Nouri al-Maliki to pull them all out; and besides, with the Iranians next door with their 1,000,000 man Army ready to take us on at a moment’s notice (should the Israel’s attack their nuclear facilities), I’m not so sure that was such a bad thing to do.
Anyway, the Iraqi’s are a very, very proud people who don’t want any foreign troops on their soil which is to their credit—just like us, I might add. And with our troops in a highly vulnerable place like Iraq especially, it didn’t seem to me for us to get the HELL out of there while we had the chance.
Saddam would of had to of been taken out sooner or later. Can you imagine if Saddam had be left for Obama to deal with? Saddam would have a field day slapping Obama around, and, of course, the press would be blaming Bush for not taking him out.
In my humble opinion, one of the big problems in waging the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) were the politically correct Rules of Engagement. The RoE’s alone are responsible for many of the US casualties. If WWII were fought in a PC way, the scenario in the novel, ‘Man in the High Castle’ would be a reality. Anyway, right now, ISIS, is the reality They don’t know what PC is and they have no rules of engagement. While we debate wether or not Saddam should have been taken out, they are burning people at the stake and whacking off heads with impunity. In the meantime, Obama and his regime seem to have adopted the strategy of Alfred E. Newman…” What? Me Worry!”
Friends of mine who served in the military did not approve of the war or the way it was prosecuted. However, on balance, I agree with VDH’s assessment because we cannot accurately know the landscape or Iraq had Saddam remained in power.
A greater unavoidable problem was that we turned the governance of Iraq over to members of the human race and the government subsequent to Saddam was inept.
Had Iraq produced men of the same caliber as our founding fathers, the middle East would be a different place today.
We won our war of 1812. They failed their first big test.
This is an excellent review, which allows the facts to speak for themselves. Two further things might be added: though the invasion of Iraq was overall popular, the noisy anti-Bush campaign began immediately, with highly exaggerated reports of destruction of irreplaceable antiques, pounding the failure to produce WMDs, and severe criticism of the US invaders for failing to immediately find the vast supplies of conventional military hardware that Saddam had stashed in various hiding places. Poison gas became, as it still is, a weapon of mass destruction or not depending on one’s politics at the moment.
p. s. That seems to be three things rather than two. One should remember to proofread before posting!
It’s sad seeing so many people on the right begin to implode due to the relentless pressure placed on them by the Left regarding the invasion of Iraq. 99% of the Senate voted to approve the removal of Saddam fulfilling the Clinton mandate the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act.
Saddam ignited two brutal wars, committed three separate genocides ( the Kurds, Marsh Arabs and the Shia of the south ) and was directly culpable for three of the largest and most destructive eco-terrorist attacks the world has even known. Those being the 600 plus oil wells he set on fire during the Gulf War which burned for seven months spewing poison into the environment on a cataclysmic scale, the total destruction of the central marshlands of Iraq in his attempt to efface the Marsh Arab population. Over 7,500 square miles of marshland was wiped out and Saddam keeping his threat to spill crude oil from Kuwait’s reserves into the Persian Gulf. He followed through on that promise in late January 1991 by spilling between 4,000,000 to 6,000,000 barrels into the Persian Gulf. All three acts of eco-terror were conducted without any protest from environmental movements.
As Mr. Hanson mentioned above Saddam’s refusal to follow the agreements for the cease fire in 1991 for Saddam to remain in power were long ago trashed by his regime. The UN also has a mandate in its own charter to stop genocide (CPPCG ) which gave the UN every right to remove Saddam from power. But lets investigate deeper as to the true nature of the regime under Saddam. Was it really a secular entity crushing Islamist movements?
Saddam’s Iraq was secular for a few decades, but as time passed and his regime became more sadistic and unstable he began to caress radical Islam into his own structure of power. In 1991 Saddam placed “Allahu Akbar” on the national flag and began a campaign to encourage his high ranking officers and other aspects of his regime to embrace Islam. This was a very onerous turn and something many overlook today as to the leadership of ISIS who’s military arm is run by former Saddam generals and officers. Saddam began to openly finance suicide bombers against Israel, reached out to al Qaeda figures in the Sudan and allowed Ansar al Islam to operate in Iraq murdering the Kurdish leadership. When Ansar al Islam terrorists were arrested after the 2003 invasion, we discovered their passports were all stamped with Iraqi visas! Not only did Saddam know they were in Iraq, but he made it legal as well. Of course Saddam also allowed al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to operate in Iraq long before Bush invaded in 2003. The U.S. 2006 Senate Report on Pre-war Intelligence on Iraq reported that Al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad from May until late November 2002. By March 2003 according to British intelligence, Zarqawi’s network had set up sleeper cells in Baghdad to resist an expected U.S. occupation of Iraq. See a connection yet? I sure do….Some of the earliest truck bomb attacks by the “insurgents” in Baghdad were traced back to Iraqi intelligence vehicles.
Saddam also cultivated his own terrorist army known as the Fedayeen Saddam which was created in 1995 under the leadership of his raping sadist son Uday. These men were to carry out suicide raids and terror bombings at Saddam’s will. Overwhelmingly these were the main force behind the insurgency after the 2003 invasion along with about 5000 to 10,000 plus foreign fighters of which 60% did the dirty work. We see this today with ISIS who make most of the foreign fighters do the fighting and dying not the Iraqi members of ISIS. See a pattern yet? In 2007 25,000 inmates were in American detention centers in Iraq. Of those, only about 290, or some 1.2 percent, were foreigners. Which means they were mostly being killed on the battlefield or fleeing the country.
The Fedayeen Saddam man power stood between 30,000 to 40,000 members and foreign fighters were no more a little more than 5000. The Iraqi insurgency at its max had about 30,000 fighters. Remember, several thousand Fedayeen Saddam fighters were most likely killed during the initial invasion or some just ran. They were replaced with outsiders. By the end of the surge we killed almost 20,000 insurgents in total.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq ( along with the insurgency ) was decimated.
In the end removing our forces from Iraq in 2012 will go down as the reason alone Iraq fell to the barbarians at the gate. As we collectively are about the witness the sacking of Baghdad, lets never forget Iraq was a great success by 2012. A nation was moved from the sadistic leadership of a genocidal mass murderer to a new democracy. But I think Obama in the end understood that only aided the camp of his political enemies. I’m sure he saw it to his political advantage to allow Iraq to fall to the wolves and point the finger at 2003.
Excellent comment with useful facts; and I’m glad that someone is highlighting the eco terrorism angle for once. Islamic societies have an appalling record in preserving the natural environment of the countries they conquer, and yet, a lot of the so-called ‘Green’ people, are the first to rush to the defence of Islam. Do they have any sense of history? It seems not.
Thanks for the additional background on that period in history. One is supposed to believe today that our actions back then were a knee jerk reaction to WMD.
My response would be decidedly un-PC. To whit – “It’s never an entirely bad idea to topple and kill one of these genocidal fascist maniacs”. Now one can argue how the ‘peace’ unraveled but the short blunt certainty of kicking over the murderous Baath regime shouldn’t be something anyone considers a bad thing. Do we, after all, worry about how the Vietnamese managed the post Khmer Rouge era after they stormed into Cambodia and toppled Pol Pot? No of course not. Was it chaotic? Yes but compared to the Khmer Rouge anything, objectively, factually anything, anything you could do or think of would have been an improvement.
The question were we right to take out Saddam is complicated by the difference between means and ends. As documented there was a consensus that a world with Saddam in control of Iraq was a better world. The war was such a success in the short term that the long term failures and unintended side effects seem inevitable, yet there were many foreign policy experts that recognized the power vacuum in Irag that would result was the central problem and it was our decision to intervene without a proper policy in place that is the main reason I think we were wrong to take out Saddam in the way we did.
“a world with Saddam in control of Iraq was a better world.” should read
a world with Saddam not in control of Iraq was a better world.”
It was not preordained to end this way. Rumsfeld’s arrogance played a major part in the descent into chaos. Had we stuck with CENTCOM’s plan, planned for and resourced stability operations, and perhaps most significantly, had Paul Bremer not disbanded the Baath party ad the Iraqi army…..
As it has always been for the last 60 to 70 years, the true blunder of the Iraq War was the media. Every terrorist insurgency aims to attack unarmed civilians in the hope that the media will blame their opponent. For political reasons the media was all too eager to comply.
Our strategy and tactical implementation was not flawless, but our society is way too unsophisticated to understand the difficulty caused by such an unethical insurgency. To add insult to injury, its violence is justified through the manipulation of the media and “democratic” activists (No Justice, No Peace).
We should start blaming our enemies for our troubles when they behave so barbarically. At this rate we will never be able to fight an effective war again unless we ally ourselves to a totalitarian Communist government…
Kill 1.3 million people, bankrupt the economy, destroy countless antiquities, leave the country in a shambles. Only a fool like Hanson would even begin to argue it was a good thing
Movie Dialogue – Ben Hur, 1959
Pontius Pilate to Ben Hur, regarding Messala…
“What he did had its way with him. Where there is greatness, great government or power, even great feeling or compassion; error also is great. We progress and mature by fault.”
Allies who lost limb or life or suffered in this and other Western causes… suffered not in vain. We in the West, learn from mistakes and grow… (if we kick out mental Progtards who never learn but replicate all stupidity.)
Jeb should have replied “you mean knowing Obama would pull all American forces out and hand the country over to ISIS? Then no. If America had a competent president now that would have followed through in Americas interests, then yes”
This would have been Saddam’s logic…
Always wondering about two points. Was Saddam a threat to Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, with all the possibilities that would have had for certain economies if he controlled them? Were there really any nuclear weapon supplies or devices that were moved out of Iraq (to where?) before the invasion?
I should also add that John Burns who was the New York Times chief in Baghdad during the war wrote an article in then Times around 2008 or 2009 that Saddam had a close and active relationship with insurgents long before Bush was even elected. Inluding terror organizations.
I don’t think it was a mistake removing Saddam, even Bush did make some major mistakes during the occupation. Leaving Iraq in 2012 without keeping a a strong force behind will be seen as a tragic error.
After America defeated Japan in 1945 communists began running wild through Japan causing great political unrest from strikes to riots. They got close to taking Japan in to the red camp. It was General McArthur who put an end to the instability. If we just up and ran in 45 46 Japan could have been lost to Stalin. Imagine that! After all the blood and treasure to take Japan if America up and ran itwwould have only benefited Stalin. This is what happened to Iraq.
Baghdad is going to fall, there’s no hope now under the administration.