Should We Have Gone to War?
Iraq, in hindsight.


William F. Buckley Jr.

I said ten days ago that if I had known back then in February 2003 what we know now I would not have counseled war against Iraq. That statement struck some as disloyal to a cause, some others as prime bait for exploitation by such as Senator Kerry. Then on July 12, President Bush gave an enormously illuminating speech to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which sheds light on ambient questions. What especially catches the eye is his saying that “Libya is dismantling its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. This progress came about through quiet diplomacy between America, Britain, and the Libyan government.”

The mind travels immediately to the question: Well, why could not diplomacy have accomplished in Iraq what it accomplished in Libya? But the President keen-wittedly bases the success of Libya on quiet diplomacy to be sure, but quiet diplomacy backed up by our own commitment to “defending the peace by taking the fight to the enemy.” He is contending, in effect, that if it hadn’t been for our military entry into Iraq, Qaddafi might well have continued his development of nuclear weapons. Who can dispositively argue that this analysis is wrong?

On that plane, here is one to ponder. A couple of years ago Saddam Hussein could have spent the night in any one of one hundred palaces he kept for his contingent whims. Now he sleeps in a 12 foot by 12 foot cell. What’s going through his mind on the matter of doing things differently?

Obviously Saddam knew he didn’t have a handy supply of weapons of mass destruction. Yet having apparently nothing to lose, he didn’t cooperate with the United Nations search team sufficiently to establish that there were no such weapons in Iraq. So, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney—and Tony Blair and other government leaders—declared that he did have those weapons, and we proceeded to war. Not only was Saddam inexplicably circuitous on these (non-existing) weapons, he completely miscalculated the stamina and determination of his Republican Guard, which collapsed and died after three weeks’ exposure to the United States Marines.

Saddam, of all people on earth, must rue the day he acted, or did not act, in time to move in the direction of quiet diplomacy, which by any measurement would have been preferable to his current arrangements.

An open question: If the commander-in-chief has evidence satisfying to his intelligence systems (and to those of the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians) that a dictator who has used such weapons before — and has twice invaded neighboring countries — has such weapons now, is there a reasonable alternative to military action? Not in the judgment of those who believe the president must act on the most cautious probabilities. If later in the day, after the fighting has ended, one learns that the weapons weren’t in fact there, how does this discredit the thinking that took him to war on the assumption that they were there?

Reason fortifies the two positions: l) that we should have gone to war, and 2) that we need not have gone to war.

The single missing component here is what was implied in President Bush’s speech to the National Security Complex: that a dramatic show of U.S. military strength was necessary to fortify the U.S. presence in the world. If it is true that Qaddafi came around because of what he had seen in Iraq, that point is carried. It is strengthened further by reasoning that North Korea may have been terminally persuaded not to proceed on an apocalyptic course by reason of the fate of Saddam Hussein.

This does not vindicate the war as we have engaged in it. Knocking off Saddam Hussein was one challenge. A second was to devolve the responsibility for rebuilding Iraq politically. This we now know keenly should have been done by others, with support from the United States. This point the president will need to focus on in the days ahead.