Looking Back at the Iraq Debate

by Ramesh Ponnuru

David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute takes a victory lap over Iraq: “Maybe they should have listened to the Cato Institute back in 2001 and 2002.” Fair enough: The bottom-line conclusion of most Cato folks, that we should not take military action against the Iraqi regime, has looked better and better over time. It’s worth noting, though, how differently things went in Iraq than anyone on either side of the pre-war debate had predicted. The mainstream opposition to the war accepted the supporters’ premise — the premise of all the intelligence services — about the regime’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Here’s how that 2002 paper’s executive summary ends: “If [Saddam] Hussein believes that his political survival is being threatened, and there is nothing he can do about it, he may respond in a dangerous and unpredictable manner—with weapons of mass destruction.”

Much of the paper discusses how the regime’s use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons could be deterred. The paper does include a paragraph about how hard it would be to stabilize Iraq after toppling the regime, but when talking about the costs of an invasion it mostly stresses how hard the regime would resist. The danger that the state would very quickly disintegrate wasn’t mentioned. That’s not a terrible indictment of the paper or Cato — basically nobody foresaw what happened, and as I mentioned there’s a lot to be said for the paper’s conclusion. The lesson we should take, though, isn’t that most opponents of the war were far-sighted so much as that wars are unpredictable, which is a good reason to be very cautious about starting them.

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