Jeb Bush is taking extreme fire for answering, in response to a question that set the predicate of “knowing what he knows now,” that yes,he would still have gone into Iraq in 2003, as his brother did when president. (Now he says he did not hear the “knowing what I know now” part of the question.) Far be it from me to defend Governor Bush, of whom I have a not-very-high opinion that continues to sink, but on the merits, the case must still be made that the original eviction of Saddam was in many respects a good call.
(Okay, readers and commenters, cue up your outrage. Go ahead.)
Granted, the two terms of Barack Obama have made Iraq into a mess. But allow me, for argument’s sake, to rephrase the question: Knowing what we know now about what happened before Obama took office on January 20, 2009, would you have gone into Iraq? The answer then, from my end, would have been an unambiguous yes.
First, we did rid the world of Saddam. That is no small thing. He was a menace. We forget now just how much of one he was, but he was a menace indeed. He could have done great damage had he stayed in power.
Second, he still did have traces of weapons of mass murder (WMM — a better term than WMD). And he had maintained the capability to rapidly rebuild his stocks. The sanctions regime, undermined by a massive oil-for-food scandal, was eroding. Europe was, as is its wont, being Europe, meaning feckless and corrupt. Saddam was about to outlast its will. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe he had even more WMMs, and that he spirited them to Syria, as Israeli intelligence suggested at the time. If that is so, then the whole WMM subject takes on a different light, one that makes the military eviction of Saddam look far better.
Third, the Iraqi people welcomed representative government with enthusiasm and courage. Their first and second post-Saddam elections — the voting process, not the results — were inspirational. And they catalyzed a series of similar movements elsewhere — the Orange Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, etc. — which provided hope to millions. Granted, the Bush administration’s mishandling of the military situation and the reconstruction — until it finally tried the surge in 2007 – threw away most of the benefits. But then the troop surge worked, and Iraq stabilized, and it became for a while a useful ally in the region.
Fourth, and most importantly, Saddam’s ouster had a bank-shot effect of scaring Libya’s dangerous Qaddafi straight, at least temporarily. He turned over vast stores of weapons. He stopped in its tracks a nuke program that was far closer to fruition than we had realized. For five or six years he provided incredibly useful intelligence against worldwide terrorist networks, and against the nuke network of A. Q. Khan.
Fifth, while this is only a satellite effect of our involvement in Iraq, it actually served as a net-plus politically for George W. Bush in his re-election effort against John Kerry — a net-plus without which Bush probably would not have won. This is from memory, but I think the “for-or-against” Iraq poll questions in that campaign were about a net wash, but the “who do you trust to be strong in defending American interests” question still favored Bush significantly enough to have made the difference — along with high turnout in anti–gay-marriage initiatives — between winning and losing. And if anybody thinks that subsequent Bush performance made that a pyrrhic victory, I have two names for them: Roberts and (especially) Alito. As frustrating as the Supreme Court is, imagine how badly off the country would be if Justices Rehnquist and O’Connor had been replaced by justices Laurence Tribe and Hillary Rodham Clinton. And imagine how much more badly bungled so much other domestic policy would have been under Kerry. Ugh. Meanwhile, the War on Terror for the second Bush term certainly was a lot more successful at protecting American lives and interests than it would have been under Kerry.
Of course, we can play the “what if” game forever. But conservatives should stop acting as if the major foreign-policy/defense initiative that most of us supported at the time was an utter failure. In fact, it was a mixed bag — but some of the items in the bag that were good were very good indeed.