This morning on C-SPAN 2, I heard a nice young historian spout the conventional wisdom about President Bush and the Iraq War. This particular interpretation is now totally uncontroversial – but it is false.
Elizabeth Borgwardt of Washington University told an audience that George W. Bush had urged the war in Iraq in order to end the threat of weapons of mass destruction and only later used democracy promotion as a post-hoc justification for the conflict.
There is little question that “the weapons” as President Bush typically referred to WMDs were a key concern. But it is highly misleading to say that they were the sole justification.
Here is an excerpt from President Bush’s February 2003 speech to the American Enterprise Institute (the war started the following month) in which he set out the case for war. He addressed WMDs first:
In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world — and we will not allow it. This same tyrant has close ties to terrorist organizations, and could supply them with the terrible means to strike this country — and America will not permit it. The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away. The danger must be confronted. We hope that the Iraqi regime will meet the demands of the United Nations and disarm, fully and peacefully. If it does not, we are prepared to disarm Iraq by force. Either way, this danger will be removed.
The President then went on to describe the larger project of democratizing the Middle East:
The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat. Acting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world. The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.
The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein — but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.
Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime’s torture chambers and poison labs in operation. Any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them.
. . . The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the “freedom gap” so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.
It may have been impossibly idealistic and even naïve to entertain such hopes (though I don’t think so), but an ambitious freedom agenda was always a part of the justification for the Iraq War – and that’s something that everyone who argues the Bush “lied us into war” is purposely ignoring.