Today is the 16th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and Twitter is alive with condemnations of the conflict — countered by precious few defenses. Yet I believed the Iraq War was just and proper in 2003, and I still believe that today. When Donald Trump condemned the war during the 2015 primary campaign and claimed that if Saddam was still in power we “wouldn’t have the problems you have right now,“ I believed he was dead wrong. As I argued then, from the moment Hussein took power until he was deposed in 2003, there were few greater instruments of instability in the world than Saddam Hussein.
Before he was allegedly “contained” by constant, substantial American military deployments, he invaded his neighbors, gassed his people, harbored and supported terrorists, and was responsible for not one but two of the largest conventional military conflicts since World War II — the horrific Iran–Iraq war and Operation Desert Storm. Even after American containment efforts attempted to lock into place and limit his malign reach, he was a prime supporter of a deadly Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign that caused proportionately more Israeli civilian casualties than American civilians lost on 9/11, he tried to assassinate an American president — George H. W. Bush — and he routinely fired on American pilots enforcing lawful no-fly zones. He violated the Gulf War cease-fire accords, interfered with weapons inspections, and hid away chemical weapons by the thousands. No, his WMD program wasn’t nearly as extensive as we thought, but it is fiction to believe his weapons were entirely gone. Americans were injured by Saddam’s chemicals during the war.
Moreover, it’s easy to forget that before Barack Obama’s terrible decision to withdraw in 2011, the Iraq War had been won. Saddam was gone, the follow-on insurgency had been wiped-out — reduced to a few hundred fighters scattered in a vast country — and American and Iraqi forces were masters of the battlefield. Joe Biden asserted that Americans would look at Iraq as “one of the great achievements of this administration.” But Obama withdrew too soon. He squandered American gains, opened the door to unrestrained factionalism, and left the fragile Iraqi nation vulnerable to renewed jihadist assault.
And lest we think that non-intervention can’t also carry a terrible price, we can’t forget the Ba’athist dictator we left alone, Hafez al-Assad. His nation was caught up in the unrest and ferment of the Arab Spring — a movement that began far from the Iraq War. His nation has since become a charnel house, and not only did it spark a refugee crisis that has helped destabilize Europe, but it became the battleground where the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq were reborn as ISIS, a genocidal force that invaded a weakened Iraq from Syria, ignited yet another phase of the Iraq War, and inspired a renewed wave of terror in the Europe (and deadly attacks in the United States). Non-intervention does not always bring peace, and the consequences can include death on a mass scale.
While I believe the war against Saddam represented the best of a series of bad options, there is no question that our intervention in Iraq was marred by two very costly mistakes. I’ve already mentioned one — Obama’s premature withdrawal. The first mistake belongs to George W. Bush and his commanders. It’s by now quite clear that we invaded with insufficient force to properly secure the country and then compounded that error with early blunders after Saddam was deposed. We not only failed to secure vast quantities of munitions, we disbanded the Iraqi Army and then pursued seriously flawed counterinsurgency tactics before righting the ship during the Surge. Bush’s mistakes made the war more costly. Obama’s mistakes gave room for the ISIS offensive and necessitated renewed American involvement in Iraq. Both men eventually corrected their errors. Bush reinforced American forces as his commanders changed tactics, and Obama put boots back on the ground to help save Iraq from potential collapse.
More than 4,400 Americans died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, including men I served with and loved like brothers. They died in a just cause fighting enemies of this country — a regime and an insurgency that in different ways threatened vital American interests and actively sought to kill Americans and our allies. War is horrible, and the Iraq War is no exception to that rule. Civilian casualties were terrible and often intentionally inflicted by our enemies to destabilize the country and inflame sectarian divisions. But I truly believe the choice our nation faced was to fight Saddam then, on our terms, or later, when he had recovered more of his nation’s strength and lethality. The United States is safer with him gone. It’s just a terrible shame that for a time we chose to throw away a victory bought with the blood of brave men.