It has been 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, and the media is marking the anniversary with a plethora of retrospective comments about it. Most of it centers on two issues: One, why did President George W. Bush claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when he didn’t? And two, why did Bush imply that Iraq had ties to al-Qaida when there weren’t any? He is being described as either a deliberate liar or a buffoon, stupid enough to believe his ideologically bellicose advisers, or both. Some brief responses before I address the most important question with respect to the war.
On WMD: Bush had plenty of support from sources outside his advisers. The first secretary of state to say that Saddam had WMD was Madeline Albright; the first president to use military force against him was Bill Clinton. At the time of the invasion, Britain’s intelligence agencies said that Saddam had WMD — hence Prime Minister Tony Blair’s full support for Bush — as did the Israelis and the Germans. All were proved wrong when a definitive inspection of suspected WMD sites conducted after U.S. troops entered Iraq disclosed no weapons there, but that doesn’t mean any of them lied.
On al-Qaida: Osama bin Laden called the war in Iraq “the most important and serious issue today for the whole world,” and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, said that victory there was essential if al-Qaida’s dream of a caliphate was to be realized. Their comments suggest that Bush had genuine reason to believe that action in Iraq would help defeat al-Qaida even if Saddam had no ties to 9/11.
Now to the real issue, which is being ignored: Is Iraq — and the world — better off because of the war?
With Saddam gone, Iraqi citizens are free from the constant fear of random arrest and murder. Their faltering economy has been revitalized. There is no genocide being planned at the hands of their government and no mass graves are being filled with bodies of dissenters. Geopolitically, Iraq is no threat to her neighbors and al-Qaida has been discredited throughout the world by virtue of its military defeat there.
All good things, and none would have come to pass if Saddam had been left in place. David Kay, who led the inspection team that determined that there were no WMD in Iraq, told Congress in 2004, “It was reasonable to conclude that Iraq posed an imminent threat. What we learned during the inspection made Iraq a more dangerous place, potentially, than, in fact, we thought it was before the war.” Asked, “Knowing what you know now, would you still support going in?” Kay responded, “Absolutely.”
That’s because Saddam was not just a cruel dictator but a sociopathic killer and megalomaniac who cared nothing for the lives of his subjects or anyone else. If Bush had backed down and allowed him to remain in power, he would have returned to WMD production as soon as the inspectors were gone, hugely destabilizing the Middle East and discrediting America’s standing with every country in the region. Again, in David Kay’s words, Iraq under Saddam was “More dangerous ... potentially than ... we thought ... before the war.” If that potential danger had been allowed to materialize, today’s criticism of Bush would be, “He should have had the courage to take out Saddam when he had the chance.”
The consequences of the Iraq War have been far from perfect, but the consequences of not having fought it would have been worse.