Now that John Kerry has decided (well, for the moment), that the invasion of Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” it’s worth revisiting the underlying rationale for the war–in a slightly unorthodox way. Rather than taking at face value what George W. Bush has said about his decision-making, let’s premise here that there are certain realities an American president must tacitly acknowledge but cannot fully articulate since the articulation itself would further jeopardize national security. The underlying rationale for the war in Iraq–apart from whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, apart from whether he was collaborating with al Qaeda–is likely one such reality.
That rationale begins on September 11, 2001. From the perspective of the Islamist radicals who sponsored the attack, the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling to ashes must surely have seemed an act of God–an epic blow against the infidels. Beyond what the moment meant to the perpetrators, however, a perilous message went out worldwide. Since the end of World War Two, America’s national security had rested, to a substantial extent, on the belief that an outright attack on the United States would be answered by retaliation on a biblical scale. That belief turned out to be false. Osama bin Laden called America’s bluff. He hit us in a horrific way, and we didn’t strike back with a terrible swift sword. We investigated, determined who was behind the attack…and even once we determined it was Osama, and that he was operating out of Afghanistan, even then we didn’t incinerate Kabul. Rather, we only demanded that the Taliban government hand over Osama “dead or alive.” In doing so, we inadvertently, and perhaps unavoidably, provided our international enemies with an easy-to-follow formula for making war against America: Just work your mayhem through non-state surrogates and, after the next 9/11, if America again connects the dots, hand over the necessary corpses to satisfy Washington’s demand for justice.
That formula is out there, right now, recognized by our enemies across the world.
Though President Bush cannot call attention to it–to do so would be to underscore our vulnerability–America can no longer rely on the threat of sudden annihilation to deter attacks. Strategically, therefore, the war in Iraq was necessitated first and foremost by our measured response to 9/11. Saddam Hussein was, without question, the most likely candidate to capitalize on the formula–even if his pan-Arabism is hard to reconcile with the radical Islam of Osama’s gang. Saddam and Osama were both consumed by totalizing visions of the future of Islamic peoples, and both saw the United States as the chief obstacle to the realization of their visions. More ominously, if a freelance thug like Osama managed to kill 3,000 Americans, what might a resolute sociopath like Saddam, with the resources of an oil-drenched country, accomplish? Because we could no longer depend on the threat of a cataclysmic response to deter him, Saddam had finally to be dealt with. Ousting Saddam, moreover, would present hostile regimes elsewhere with a show of American force, a signal that they might be next if they provoked us–as deterrents go, not exactly on par with the prospect of sudden annihilation, but really the best we could do. The fact that Saddam happened to be in violation of United Nations Resolution 687, the ceasefire agreement which kept him in power in 1991, provided a useful pretext, acquitting America of the charge of disregarding international law. But what about the WMDs! Saddam had no WMDs!
Isn’t that the main objection, in hindsight, to the war?
Even if Saddam did not possess the stockpiles of WMDs the world believed he did, he was armed, after 9/11, with the formula to make war against the United States. And there are more conventional, lower-tech ways to strike us than with a suitcase nuke or thermos full of Sarin. Saddam was already doling out $25,000 bonuses to the dirt-poor families of Palestinian suicide-bombers in Israel. He was harboring known terrorists and funding terror-training camps within his borders. Is it such a stretch to imagine Saddam, say, dispatching a dozen or so militant lowlifes to massacre schoolchildren in Wichita…and then forking over the still-warm bodies of their handlers as a show of support for the American victims?
I’m guessing the folks in Beslan can imagine that scenario.
What the invasion of Iraq accomplished, in short, was to alert the world to the fact that America was now willing–on a preemptive basis– to take down any regime we suspected might be plotting against us. Realistically, can we invade every country that fits such a profile? Of course not–in the first place, because it would spread our military resources too thin, and in the second place, because it would make a mockery of international law. Saddam, I reiterate, stood in violation of U.N. Resolution 687. As partner to that ceasefire, the United States was the aggrieved party and exercised its right to resume the hostilities of the first Gulf War. Therefore, no international law was broken by America’s overthrow of Saddam’s regime.
In the final analysis, the invasion of Iraq did more than enforce the conditions of Resolution 687. It did more than rid that country and that region of a sadistic dictator and his brood. These were worthwhile things to do in themselves. But, more importantly, the invasion served notice to our enemies worldwide: If you give us sufficient cause to doubt your intentions, we won’t necessarily wait for the threat to materialize.