Probable Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush got himself into trouble by sort of, sort of not, answering the question whether he would have supported going into Iraq in 2003 — had he known then what we know now.
Republican candidates vied in attacking Bush’s initial confusion about answering the question. Most reiterated that they most certainly would not have invaded Iraq, regardless of what they know now or thought they knew then. Politically, it appears to be wiser to damn the decision to invade Iraq and to forget the circumstances that prompted the war — and the later political environment that ended the American presence.
Unfortunately, our country seems to be suffering from collective amnesia.We apparently have forgotten a number of crucial points:
1. Who authorized the war?
The war was pushed by the Bush administration, but it was authorized by both Houses of Congress, with a majority of Democrats (29 to 21) joining Republicans in the Senate (49 to 1). The authorizations of October 2002 sailed through, with especially enthusiastic rhetoric from Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Harry Reid, and Jay Rockefeller, who all had the same access to U.S. and foreign intelligence that the Bush administration did.
2. Just WMD?
The war was not just about WMD. Congress was on record as supporting 23 writs for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force, and at least 20 of them had little if anything to do with WMD. They included Iraq’s noncompliance with the 1991 ceasefire agreement; its “brutal repression of its civilian population,” which included genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs; its 1993 assassination attempt on former President George H. W. Bush; its firing on coalition aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones; its “continu[ing] to aid and harbor other international terrorist organizations,” including one of the architects of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; its bounties to families of suicide bombers; its aggression against its neighbors — and on and on.
Again, the vast majority of these “whereas” clauses had nothing to do with WMD, but sought, in a post-9/11 landscape, to reify Bill Clinton’s Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Clinton’s neoconservative resolution had made it the official policy of the United States to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime and promote a democratic replacement.
The war was not just about WMD. Congress was on record as supporting 23 writs for the removal of Saddam Hussein by force.
No one has suggested that the Marsh Arabs were not slaughtered, or that the plot against George H. W. Bush was phony, or that Saddam did not subsidize suicide bombers or harbor international terrorists, or violate U.N. agreements. Instead, for some strange reason, the war was deemed fraudulent because a few of the 23 resolutions proved to be exaggerated fears. A more honest analysis for critics of the war would be that going into Iraq was mistaken because the 20-plus congressional writs were never worth it — not just because WMD did not appear in readily deployable stockpiles.
3. Why 2002–03?
What immediately prompted the invasion plans of 2003 was not just the nation-building hopes of neoconservatives, but a number of recent developments in a post-9/11 climate. The sanctions were breaking down. The oil-for-food embargo was collapsing, and in any case was riddled with fraud and insider deals. Sweetheart Iraqi oil concessions with Russia and France had made it nearly impossible for the U.N. to be sympathetic to American efforts to ratchet up the pressure on the Hussein regime.
Our allies had tired of over a decade of no-fly zones, and the burden had shifted almost entirely to the Americans. After 9/11, the focus had turned to rogue nations that had used their oil wealth to subsidize terrorism, war, and genocide. Saddam’s body counts easily trumped those of the Assad regime and of the Qaddafi dictatorship. The former autocracy was later threatened with red lines and ordered to abdicate by Barack Obama; the latter was removed by force without either U.N. sanction or congressional approval. Both Syria and Libya are now wastelands and incubators of terrorism.
Why, however, in 2002 did Republicans so overwhelmingly support the war, along with Democratic senators and representatives, liberal pundits, and Democratic public intellectuals? The fear of WMD, of course, was genuine, as well as anger over Saddam’s support for terrorists, his practice of genocide, and his mockery of sanctions. The argument that the intelligence about WMD was massaged and exaggerated is problematic given that foreign leaders, with their own independent sources of knowledge, were wary of the invasion precisely because of fears that Saddam would use WMD. Stocks of WMD even today continue to turn up both in Iraq and in Syria; some may have fallen into the hands of ISIS, suggesting that the full story of Saddam’s chemical and biological arsenals still has never been fully told. Just recently President Obama was forced to deny that chlorine gas — which is being used by Syria today, and which proved so deadly in the World War I battles of Ypres and Caporetto — is a weapon of mass destruction.
The sanctions were breaking down. The oil-for-food embargo was collapsing, and in any case was riddled with fraud and insider deals.
In addition, the debate in 2002 over the impending war came amid the recent euphoria over the removal of the Taliban, in which a small U.S. team of specialized forces, aided by air power, had in a matter of weeks forced the Taliban out of Afghanistan and installed a democratic alternative, while suffering few casualties. Hamid Karzai was at the time being heralded as a statesman and a new sort of democratic Islamic leader. Add in the easy victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991, and few politicians or pundits wanted to be left out of what seemed the probability of another quick victory and successful transition to constitutional government, which might offer a way of solving the problem of Islamic extremism without dealing with either oil-fed murderous dictators or anti-Western Islamic theocrats. Afghanistan, “graveyard of empires” — landlocked, mountainous, and without friendly neighbors, oil, or an industrial base — had seemed by popular consensus a far more difficult proposition than Iraq.
4. The good/bad war
If tranquility had followed the brilliant 2003 removal of Saddam, and U.S. casualties had stayed below perhaps 500 killed (some pundits had predicted thousands of fatalities as the likely cost of removing Saddam), the drafters of the 2002 resolution would have been vying for acclaim. Unfortunately, unrest, chaos, and high American casualties were the norm by 2004, and they framed the election campaigns of 2004, 2006, and 2008. During those campaigns, almost all prior Democratic and liberal supporters of the war, and many Republican and conservative supporters as well, reinvented themselves as original skeptics, as public support for the intervention eventually crashed below 30 percent.
The unpopular but eventually quite successful surge of 2007–08 salvaged the idea of creating an Iraqi government that could bring stability to the country. By the summer of 2008, the Iraq war was no longer the presidential campaign’s hinge issue. Most of Barack Obama’s original calls to bring home all U.S. troops in the spring of 2008 had been scrubbed from his website. No candidates talked any more of the war as “lost” or the surge as “failed.” The New York Times did not run any more “General Betray Us” ads. Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan were fading from the anti-war spotlight.
Unrest, chaos, and high American casualties were the norm by 2004, and they framed the election campaigns of 2004, 2006, and 2008.
While it is often said that Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war had fueled Barack Obama’s primary victories, in truth a quieting Iraq was no longer much of an issue by the later primaries of 2008. Moreover, it was the financial collapse of September 2008, not support for the war, that had doomed the presidential bid of war-hawk John McCain, who, until the Goldman Sachs/Lehman Brothers implosion, had enjoyed a 3-to-4-percentage-point lead over Barack Obama.
By 2010 Vice President Joe Biden was no longer talking of trisecting Iraq, but instead claiming that a now quiet, post-surge Iraq was likely to prove the Obama administration’s “greatest achievement” — apparently because of the emergence of a fairly stable government. At the end of 2011, President Obama, as a candidate up for reelection, bragged that America was leaving behind “a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.”
In truth, the American experience with Iraq went through a succession of phases and assessments, predicated on whatever at the time were the current American casualty rates, the status of the Iraqi government’s ability to govern the country, the price of oil, and the long-term outlook for the region. From April to July 2003, the American people and its politicians and pundits hailed a brilliant American victory that had removed a monster and ushered in new hope for the Iraqi people, while prompting Moammar Qaddafi to give up his WMD, the Assad regime to leave Lebanon, and even Pakistan to jail Dr. Khan for a while.
From August 2003 to December 2006, high American casualties and growing chaos in Iraq caused widespread criticism of the intervention as a second Vietnam. That perception changed again somewhat, thanks to the surge in 2007 and 2008, as American losses began to drop, the insurgency was crushed, and the Iraqi government began to prove viable. From 2009 to 2011 the Obama administration played down its prior opposition to the Iraq war, even as it wished to take credit for securing the country and (unwisely) removing all U.S. troops in time for the 2012 presidential election. But by 2012 the image of Iraq had changed again, as both ISIS and Iranian forces rushed into the vacuum left by the foolish departure of all U.S. peacekeeping forces, and the country fell into chaos in a fashion resembling the messes in Syria and Libya.
5. Wars change.
In other words, Iraq was by turns a brilliant victory, a debacle, a solvable problem, a great achievement, and an ISIS-infested mess — again depending on the extent of American losses, the trajectory of the Iraqi government, and the particular election cycle in the United States.
Unfortunately, lots of wars go through such stages. Korea was blasted as a policy lapse after the humiliation at Pusan. Then suddenly it became a brilliant intervention after Inchon — only to become the foolhardy disaster on the Yalu. Then by January 1951 it had become a Truman quagmire — until March 1951 and the inspired recovery under General Matthew Ridgway. Then the stalemate at the DMZ starting in May 1951 made Korea politically a controversial and costly impasse until the armistice of summer 1953. The Korean War was debated for the next 40 years as either a waste of blood and treasure or a costly but wise investment in the stand against Communist aggression.
By the late 1990s, the emergence of the South Korean tiger economy with new global brands such as Kia and Samsung, the gradual downsizing of the American presence, and the creation of real democracy — and the contrast with the nightmare in North Korea — seemed to have convinced historians that the war in fact had been worth it, despite fatalities that were more than seven times greater than those in Iraq. That assessment may change again and prompt remorse about an opportunity lost, should North Korea ever launch a nuclear-tipped missile against the U.S. or its Asian allies.
Removing Saddam was a textbook operation; the effort to quell the ensuing chaos was a textbook case of mismanagement and incompetence.
Had the U.S. Congress not cut off all aid to South Vietnam in 1974–75, and had the Saigon government survived and followed the evolutionary path of South Korea, with a Saigon now much like Seoul, our assessments of the Vietnam War might be closer to those of the Korean War, for better or worse. The Allied decision in April 1945 not to go into eastern Germany and take Berlin was seen by 1946 as a foolish missed opportunity that had ceded much of Eastern Europe to the Soviet gulag state: A war to liberate Europe that we had entered in 1941 had by 1945 ensured the subjugation of Eastern Europe. Yet in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ike’s decision to keep to the Allied plan and stay out of Berlin seemed less controversial, as the Soviet monstrosity fell by its own weight.
We should expect lots of false information and political reinvention about Iraq during the campaigns this year and next — as candidates readjust their positions to fit public opinion, itself predicated on impressions of present-day Iraq and revisionist analyses of the invasion, surge, and occupation.
There are constants, of course, that don’t change: Removing Saddam was a textbook operation; the effort to quell the ensuing chaos was a textbook case of mismanagement and incompetence. Yet the final assessment on the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein in large part hinges on whether what followed was a dramatic improvement — in terms both of U.S. strategic interest and of the humanitarian effort to help the Iraqi people — that justified the terrible American investment. That assessment since 2003 has changed frequently, but most recently in a negative direction after the foolhardy complete 2011 pullout and the logical rise of ISIS.