The Corner

The WMD fixation

I appreciate Mario Loyola’s commentary, but he misses key points, perhaps because I did not clarify them sufficiently. Like it or not, the legal basis for the war was predicated on far more than WMD. Consequently, it was a terrible diplomatic and later political mistake to focus just on WMD — not just because of what happened afterwards (again, had the occupation gone well, human nature being what it is, the absence of readily deployable WMD stockpiles would not have led to the “Bush lied, thousands died” topos), but rather because the Bush administration itself had invested so heavily in obtaining congressional support for the preemptive attack.

The Congress, with apparent support from the Bush administration, authorized the use of force on the basis of 23 writs, many of them humanitarian and especially appealing to the bipartisan consensus. Yet by de facto fixating on just one cause, the administration subverted the spirit of the authorization, and allowed those who voted for the broad authorization to later claim that they had been duped — even though the vast majority of their own causes for action were completely unaffected by the absence of WMD stockpiles.

Note that a Hillary Clinton or John Kerry did not have to state that, “Because there was no WMD, my reasons for attacking Iraq — Saddam’s sponsoring terrorists, giving bounties to suicide bombers, attacking his neighbors, or conducting genocidal attacks — are now null and void.” 

Finally, as the resolution made clear, the Congress felt that regime change was predicated not just on the future threat that Saddam posed, but that his removal was more than justified by his past behavior for which he had not paid sufficient price (cf. the inclusion of things like trying to kill a U.S. president or violation of past ceasefires and U.N. agreements). Of course, his removal would prevent such things from happening again, but there was also a sense of justified punishment for past acts inherent in the congressional authorization. It was not just that he might in the future murder thousands, but that in the past he certainly had done that and with impunity.

With all due respect to Mario, when the Congress sets out an authorization to use force on 23 grounds, and the president essentially picks one to base a war on, then there are going to be political and diplomatic consequences if the intervention meets trouble and the one cause proves less than convincing. And I’m sorry, but no president in his right mind would act, as Mario advises “even if the intel had been absolutely ambiguous.” And as I wrote, we acted not just because of intel on WMD, but because of, as Mario apparently inadvertently notes, a “confluence” of things: “a rogue regime” and “its support for terrorism,” as well as the climate “after 9/11” — along with subsidiary considerations such as the apparently easy win in Afghanistan, the strategic dangers of oil-exporting and oil-rich Iraq, the disappointing end of the 1991 war, and liberal bipartisan support (reflected well in the congressional authorizations). 

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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