Politics & Policy

Iraq Was Then, Syria Is Now

U.S. Marines in Baghdad, April 2003 (Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)
Obama hasn’t a clue what he’s doing, but at least he isn’t George W. Bush.

The Iraq War lies now mostly in the realm of myth. We have forgotten exactly how we got both into and out of the war.

The October 2002 joint congressional authorization to go to war was not just about fears of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Other worries prompted broad bipartisan support for the resolution. A majority of Democratic senators (as evidenced by their passionate speeches from the Senate floor) cited many of the resolution’s 23 writs. The latter were mostly concerned with things other than WMD: harboring terrorists, offering bounties for suicide bombers, giving refuge to at least one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing suspects, committing genocide, attempting to kill a former U.S. president, and so on. Hillary Clinton should watch her own 2002 speech from the Senate floor.

George W. Bush was the third consecutive U.S. president to have bombed Iraq. By 2001, the first Iraq war was seen as incomplete, in that a genocidal Saddam Hussein was not only still in power, but also had broken most of the accords signed after his 1991 defeat. The no-fly zones were eroding. That is why Bill Clinton bombed Iraq in 1998 and supposedly blew up lots of things and killed lots of Iraqis (Operation Desert Fox). Earlier that year he had signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which had passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. And still earlier he had famously summed up his administration’s fears:

Iraq admitted, among other things, an offensive biological warfare capability, notably, 5,000 gallons of botulin, which causes botulism; 2,000 gallons of anthrax; 25 biological-filled Scud warheads; and 157 aerial bombs. And I might say UNSCOM inspectors believe that Iraq has actually greatly understated its production.

Over the past few months, as [the weapons inspectors] have come closer and closer to rooting out Iraq’s remaining nuclear capacity, Saddam has undertaken yet another gambit to thwart their ambitions by imposing debilitating conditions on the inspectors and declaring key sites which have still not been inspected off limits. . . .

It is obvious that there is an attempt here, based on the whole history of this operation since 1991, to protect whatever remains of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, the missiles to deliver them, and the feed stocks necessary to produce them. The UNSCOM inspectors believe that Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions, a small force of Scud-type missiles, and the capacity to restart quickly its production program and build many, many more weapons. . . .

Now, let’s imagine the future. What if he fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route, which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he’ll use the arsenal. . . .

The Iraq Liberation Act, and the bipartisan support for it, later set the stage in a post-9/11 climate to authorize the use of force for regime change and to establish a democratic alternative.

Note here: Bush went to war with the full support of the American people (polls showed majorities of over 60 percent in favor), with bipartisan authorization by Congress, after a lengthy but unsuccessful attempt to gain U.N. approval, and following the earlier prompts of Bill Clinton’s warnings about WMD, which were confirmed by then-current intelligence assessments available to Congress and unquestioned at that time by any in Congress who perused them.

The anger that developed in the U.S. over the Iraq War did not originate from the stated aim of removing the monstrous Saddam Hussein or even the subsequent absence of large stocks of deployable WMD within Iraq. Saddam, remember, had killed perhaps a thousand times more Iraqis, Kurds, and Iranians with WMD than has Bashar Assad (and apparent stocks of WMD mysteriously have a bad habit of still showing up in Syria and Iraq). Instead, the war became unpopular largely for two reasons.

By late summer 2003, insurgents and terrorists had begun killing Americans in large numbers. After the American public had been prepped by an easy victory and relatively light casualties in the initial invasion, and the apparent end of the war with the successful dethronement of Saddam Hussein, the unexpected violence came as a shock. Had the U.S. military lost 4,000 dead in removing Saddam — as some retired generals had warned before the war started — and imposed immediately a quiet peace, the public would not have turned against the war. It was the depressing notion that such a brilliant campaign was followed by a costly occupation that prompted grassroots anger.

Second, the Bush administration had ignored many of the emphases of the original congressional writs and instead hyped the fears of WMD. When the latter were not found in large deployable stocks, and the war had come to seem too costly, a number of the original supporters of the war — like Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Harry Reid, and Jay Rockefeller — flipped and condemned not just the conduct of the war, but the circumstances under which they themselves had advocated it. No one in the media asked any of these new critics whether the Kurds had never been gassed, or Saddam had not harbored global terrorists, or the Marsh Arabs had not been destroyed, or Saddam had not tried to kill former President George H. W. Bush.

The media — and not just the mainstream media — likewise turned on the effort. Once-vigorous supporters across the political spectrum, such as William F. Buckley Jr., Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, George Will, and Fareed Zakaria, now damned the war as either ill-thought-out or incompetently run to the point that its aims were not worth the costs of the means to achieve them. If the failure to bring democratic reform to the Middle East had once been the liberal critique of George H. W. Bush’s short-sighted peace deal with Saddam Hussein, advocacy of constitutional government now became the brand of supposedly suspect neo-con pro-Israel operatives.

The incompetent occupation from 2003 to 2006, coupled with the U.S. elections of 2004 and 2006, sparked an anti-war movement in which the likes of Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, the Democratic Left, and the New York Times — mostly now silent amid Obama’s current bombing — made claims that Bush alone had started a preemptive unilateral war for the sake of oil. That he was following prior Clinton leads, had congressional authority on the basis of more than 20 writs, believed that Saddam was a supporter of global terrorists, and was already ensuring that Iraqi oil would go to market under transparent circumstances and mostly to China, Russia, and Europe — all these were conveniently ignored.

After a disastrous midterm election, and without much support among his Republican base, Bush in late 2006 gambled with the surge, and appointed General David Petraeus to pacify Iraq and win the peace. Two years later the surge was recognized even by its critics (with the exception of Barack Obama) ​as a success. Obama entered office with a relatively calm Iraq and with the monthly accident rate among the U.S military higher than the numbers of troops injured or killed by enemy action in Iraq.

In other words, as in the bungled and far deadlier Korean War, a peace was finally won, and an occupation was outlined that could ensure Iraq a pathway to stability. Whether that result was worth the horrific cost in terms of the dead, the wounded, and lost treasure can be debated. But what cannot be questioned is that Iraq in 2009–11 was far more stable than many other Arab countries, such as Libya, Egypt, or Syria. It had escaped most of the violence of the Arab Spring, and thus was hailed by Barack Obama and Joe Biden variously as stable, secure, and potentially the Obama administration’s greatest achievement.

What happened subsequent to 2008 is also a matter of record. Obama had run for president on the promise of getting all troops out of Iraq and on the premise that the surge had failed. He pulled the last U.S. peacekeepers out in 2011, and yet bragged in the 2012 campaign about the stable government that he had left behind — something that would be analogous to having yanked all peacekeepers out of South Korea in 1955, or Japan in 1950, or the Balkans in 2002, and then assuming these war-torn countries would have followed their actual mostly successful trajectories.

Once we left Iraq in 2011 — having announced that we were going to do so as early as 2009 — the once defeated and dispersed radical Islamic terrorists regrouped under the banner of the Islamic State. The Maliki government, no longer fearing U.S. oversight, hounded its Sunni enemies. Corruption spread. Iran entered the strategic vacuum. Our Sunni friends in and outside of Iraq felt abandoned. And by 2014 Iraq had regressed to 2006, with the country in open civil war.

In response to this chaos, Barack Obama has bombed Iraq without congressional support or U.N. authorization, but apparently relying on the very 2002 congressional resolution he once caricatured. He is now bombing Syria without any resolution from Congress or authorization from the U.N. He has not been able to square the circle of his own conduct, namely that his politically driven decision to leave Iraq may well have created the very conditions that led him to choose to get back into it.

Note too the absence of an anti-war movement in America today. There is no grassroots outrage that Obama did not seek resolutions from the U.N. (as opposed to merely lecturing to it). No one is angry that he bypassed Congress the way he did in bombing Libya. There is no stated worry about indiscriminate bombing or collateral damage. Instead, in the same manner in which renditions, Guantanamo, preventive detention, the Patriot Act, drones, and almost all the other Bush–Cheney anti-terrorism protocols were once proof of the Bush administration’s supposed criminality, only to be conveniently ignored when Barack Obama embraced them, now the new bombing of Iraq and Syria is likewise not a source of popular discontent.

That Obama has now bombed three Arab countries and done nothing to help ameliorate the chaos on the ground may be politically astute, but it is not a morally driven decision. Bush, the supposed war criminal, sacrificed his presidency to ensure that American bombing did not lead to a Mogadishu-like situation in Iraq. He ordered the surge, after warning what would happen if he did not — and what did, in fact, happen under Obama.

The problem with Obama in the Middle East is that he still does not know exactly whom he is hurting and whom he is helping with his bombing — and cannot know under a policy of blowing things up from the air and after a while leaving. He has no intention of cleaning up or sorting out the mess on the ground that such bombing aggravates, and he has no worry that either a popular or a media audit will ensue. Libya has already become ancient history. No one remembers our once strong support for the terrorist-minded Muslim Brotherhood or our schizophrenia about the present junta in Egypt. No one remembers that we once were on the verge of bombing Assad and now are de facto empowering him. No one recalls that Obama currently has some strategic latitude in his decisions because the fracking and horizontal drilling inside America — which he once strongly opposed, and currently mostly forbids in new leases for federal lands — have given the United States some immunity from the usual oil fallout from Middle East wartime chaos.

In sum, the only legitimate critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq War is that the lives and treasure lost in the chaotic occupation of 2003–06 were not worth the removal of the monstrous Saddam Hussein and the ensuing establishment of a stable, consensual state in Iraq. And the only legitimate defense of Obama’s subsequent policy in the region is that, while he is bombing all sorts of groups in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, has abdicated leadership in a way that has led to mass killing and destruction in the region, has no plans to help craft postwar consensual governments, and does not quite know who his enemies are or what they are planning, he so far has not lost American lives in the process — at least until the ascendant Islamic State flexes its global muscles.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.


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