The Corner

Why We Invaded Iraq

There’s a lot of truth in Victor Davis Hanson’s recent essay (“Why Did We Invade Iraq?“) but I feel compelled to point out a major flaw in his whole argument, because it risks losing sight of the essential dilemma of 21st-century security. 

Victor writes that over the last decade, we have forgotten “the climate of 2003 and why we invaded in the first place.” He then argues that “the war was predicated on six suppositions” and sets out to list each in detail, from regrets over not eliminating Saddam in 1991 to worries over weapons of mass destruction. 

It’s nice to reminisce about all the various reasons why the war’s supporters thought we should invade, but we have to remember that the Bush administration’s public rationale for war drifted over time. Crucially, the administration got sucked into a forensic dispute over the presence of WMDs in which it had accepted the burden of proving that Saddam had them, a battle it couldn’t possibly win before invading. This led to a major diplomatic failure — we never gained broad international acceptance of the principles on which we were acting — which ended up nearly killing political support for the war effort in its crucial phase.

Indeed, it appears that the Bush administration itself never reached agreement on the reasons why we needed to invade. Proponents of the war now point to an “intelligence failure” regarding the presence of WMDs, but the intelligence only failed because the public case for war came to depend on its proving their presence. Victor writes, “This concentration on WMD would prove a critical political mistake.” I agree that the WMD fiasco stemmed from a major political failure. But the failure wasn’t that the Bush administration focused on WMDs. It was that the administration didn’t properly frame the threat posed by Saddam, which rested on the risk his regime and WMDs presented.

In a review of George Tenet’s book, At the Center of the Storm, back in 2007, I tried to explain my understanding of what went wrong inside the White House: 

Intel is by its nature fragmentary and inferential. The evidence we needed in Iraq was on the ground in Iraq, and Saddam controlled all of it. When Tenet said the case for war was a “slam dunk” he was jumping the barrier that should separate intel and policy. The intel was ambiguous. Intel is always ambiguous, especially when the question is as vast as that posed by Iraq. Because the presumption was already against Saddam — and rightly so — the intel community’s ambiguous answer left Cheney and many other people with no doubt that Saddam had WMDs — as a policy judgment based on history and the totality of the circumstances, of which intel was only a part. 

Policymakers do not have the luxury of coming to no firm conclusion simply because the intel comes to no firm conclusion. What has been consistently missing from this whole debate is an appreciation of the fact that, given Saddam’s history, we had to presume the worst. By 2002, the only thing that could assuage our fears about Saddam was transparency in his regime. Without transparency, we were facing a potential threat of unknown scope that — should it ever materialize — could cause much more damage than a punitive action would be able to remediate.

And that meant that it was Saddam — not the United States — who had the burden of proof as to the WMDs. It was the administration’s failure to understand this and make this clear which has led to the widespread — and absolutely false — perception that because the pre-war intelligence was mistaken, it was a mistake to invade Iraq. If policy should never “cook” the intel, neither should intel “cook” the policy. Even if the administration had known how unreliable the CIA’s intel really was, the problem facing it would have been exactly the same.

In other words, even if the intel had been absolutely ambiguous (“Mr. President, we don’t know what is going on in Iraq”) the president would have been right to focus on WMDs, because it was the confluence of a rogue regime, its support for terrorism, and the possibility of such weapons that made Saddam’s regime so frightening after 9/11.

Bush was entirely right to focus on this reasoning. Where he failed was in winning the argument over the burden of proof about Iraq’s weapons programs. Given the nature of WMDs — how easy they are to move and to hide — we will never be able to know what other countries have or don’t have by relying on our intelligence services. The key to disarming Iraq all along was to figure out a way for the Iraqi government to give reliable and transparent assurances.

The same issue now looms centrally in Iran’s nuclear program, and will dominate the 21st-century global security environment. Victor thinks we have forgotten why we invaded Iraq. The deeper problem is that we never properly understood why it had become necessary to invade. 

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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