How to criticize the War in Iraq

Criticizing the decision to invade Iraq may be harder than you think. Photo: Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea, March 27, 2013 — If there is one point on which modern opinions converge, it is that the War in Iraq was a tragedy and the decision to engage in it a blunder of the worst kind.

This edict we dare not oppose; better for us to follow the crowd, and join in the smearing of the war, and of the President who started it. We will, therefore, criticize the war, but we will do so with our own tools and our own methods. We will reject the approach of our colleagues, who base their criticism on the war’s results, or on its costs; for on such grounds, the War in Iraq is hardly deserving of censure. Who can say that 4400 killed over a period of eight years is an exorbitant price, when in Vietnam we lost in one year, 16,000, and on Omaha Beach, 3000 men fell in the course of a morning? Who can say that 4% of GDP is not a bargain for two wars? Common folk may be driven to anger by the mention of thousands killed and billions spent, but surely the learned among us can resist those emotions, and find stronger grounds on which to base a reproach.

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 Results-based thinking can never lead to a proper criticism of policy. Even if the results of Bush’s decision were ten, or a hundred times worse than they actually were, it is not enough for us to pass judgment on it, for it is quite possible for a bad result to be the best result possible, and a good result to be the worst.  

All legitimate criticism must therefore base itself on some form of counterfactual analysis. It must study not only what happened but what could have or would have happened; for nothing which transpires in the physical world can be indicted or praised solely on the basis of its own merits. When we praise the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are really saying that the alternative – invading it from the sea – would have led to something worse. If we criticize it, we are saying that another action (or non-action, most likely) would have led to something better. When we say that appeasing Hitler in 1938 was wrong, we are really saying that it would have been better to fight him then than one year later. Appeasement, in and of itself, is not wrong; it is a perfectly legitimate strategy, used regularly by countries both big and small; it is to be indicted, however, when there is a better course available.

Many scholars, especially those with an empirical slant, are wary of counterfactual analysis, which takes them away from the safer ground of facts, and requires the use of their imagination, which is not their forte. But imagination, as the great Einstein once said, is truly more important than knowledge; and it is perhaps a distinction of our field that the quest for truth relies as much on this creative faculty as it does on the ability to see facts.

What were the options?

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Anyone who dares to criticize the actions of another, and especially of a person who bears the weight of responsibility, must at the very least have the courtesy to put himself in that person’s shoes. He must forget for a moment the knowledge that he has gained from hindsight; in our case, he must forget that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and instead fill his mind with reports that told him there were. All legitimate criticism must begin in the shoes of the one being criticized.

Our first task, therefore, is to put ourselves in the position of George W. Bush in the period between 9/11 and March 2003. Then we must lay out the options that he faced and choose amongst them the one that is best. To criticize is to pick an option other than the one that was taken, and to give good reason for it. To praise is to demonstrate that a better result was out of reach.

There were two alternative options available to Bush besides the option that he chose. The first of these was to aim for a compromise, hoping to gain reentry for the inspectors (who had been expulsed during the Clinton years) while keeping the military option “on the table.” This is more or less the policy we are using against Iran today. The second was appeasement, in which case we would give up on inspections, rely exclusively on the sanctions already in place (which were weakening at the time), and reject the military option completely. The first option being the more reasonable, let us consider it first.

The compromise option

A compromise with Saddam Hussein was available in the final months of 2002 when U.N. Resolution 1441 was passed and the inspectors were allowed to return, after a long hiatus. Iraq made a seeming effort to comply with our demands, and had we accepted this as full compliance, war could have been avoided, at least for the moment, and a compromise achieved.

But would it have lasted? Would the confrontation have been diffused and just petered out over time? Such a scenario is possible only if Saddam Hussein would have followed the agreement to a tee. But would he have done that, after a decade of defiance, after sixteen U.N. Resolutions to his name?

Compliance, or “coming clean,” would have brought upon him a double loss: first, he would have suffered the onus of having submitted to American pressure; second, he would have shown the world that he, in fact, did not have the weapons that his neighbors expected him to have. And these two losses combined would have skewed the balance of power against him.

Neither is it very likely that public opinion in America would have heartily embraced an agreement with such holes. More likely, both sides of the aisle would have attacked it – the Republicans, for it being flawed, and the Democrats, for the sake of the next election. In these circumstances, the smallest breach by Hussein would have re-launched the crisis.

Here we come upon an important insight that no self-respecting critic can ignore: he must find a way, not only to diffuse the war – he must diffuse the confrontation. So long as the confrontation is maintained, with the memory of 9/11 to fuel it, the likelihood of coming to blows is always there and always high. In other words, the critic must find a way to avoid war, not only in 2003 but also 2004, 2005 and so on.

The option of appeasement

As options go, this one is ridiculous.

When two countries confront each other over whatever issue, and both sides know that one of them can do more damage to the other than vice versa, it is quite unprecedented for this stronger side to back down from this war of nerves. Indeed, I cannot think of a single instance in which a state so advantaged demonstrated such inexplicable generosity. The appeasement of Hitler does not even come close, for in 1938, it was not clear which side could do more damage to the other; they were so evenly matched. But in 2002-2003, everyone knew which side was stronger, and for that side to back down would have required of its leader, George W. Bush, a political courage bordering on madness. How could he have explained such a move to his people – and so soon after 9/11? Unknown to them were the “tragedies” that a war would bring. They would have seen only the loss, and the cowardice; and in 2004, they would have surely replaced him with a new President, who then would have had to confront Iraq with heightened resolution, making war all but inevitable. In 2003, nothing could have made a war with Iraq more unavoidable than the attempt to avoid it.

From Saddam’s shoes

If I were in Saddam Hussein’s position, I would respond to a strategy of appeasement with a nuclear program and gather all the illicit weapons that I can find; for I have just been shown that there is little risk to such defiance. To the strategy of compromise, I would respond either by spurning an agreement outright or by agreeing to one and then breaching it, for I must act as if I have the weapons that I am suspected of having; and since the threat of attacking me has only been expressed in words, it seems worth the risk to test the opponent’s will.

If there is a real probability of the Americans toppling me, then I must appease them; I will meet their every demands if need be, even at the risk of being found out that I have no illicit weapons; for bad as that may be, it is still better than losing my throne and my life.

But is America capable of this? Is it willing to do regime change?

The trouble with regime change

Only against a policy of regime change is it correct for Saddam Hussein to “come clean.” But the problem with such a policy was the novelty of it. Never had America defied its closest allies and unilaterally invaded a sovereign state. In 1991, Bush senior had stopped short of taking Baghdad, partly for fear of the French leaving his coalition. It was this fear, I believe, which weighed heavier in Bush’s mind than some prophetic insight into the horrors of regime change. In 1998, similar pressures restrained Clinton to a short, three-day bombing. Designed to punish Saddam for obstructing the inspectors, this token measure failed utterly to regain entry for the inspectors. And thus, the strictures imposed on Saddam after the Gulf War were all but gone by the year 2000.

Had Saddam Hussein been more attuned to the nature of our domestic politics, he would have known that after what happened on 9/11 no American president could tolerate such defiance from a Muslim, Middle Eastern country, and especially on an issue as sensitive as WMDs.

But Hussein was out-of-touch with the American scene. It was the global scene which drew his interest. And there he saw, opposing the United States, two of its strongest allies and two of its strongest rivals. To this clash of wills he made a critical contribution. In late 2002, when Resolution 1441 was passed, he shrewdly complied with its demands, but only enough to satisfy the French and not enough to satisfy the Americans. In so doing, he sparked a crisis between the allies, and preserved, at the same time, the impression that he still had the forbidden weapons.  

Had the Bush Administration conducted a truly unilateral policy of regime change, it would have spurned the UN altogether and dealt with Iraq directly, forbidding mediation from even a France or a Russia. But the policy of the Bush Administration was not so pure; it was regime change, but it was regime change with a very strong element of compromise.

Twice the administration appealed to the Security Council, begging for French support as if they needed it, and giving the impression that only with sufficient backing would they dare topple Saddam. Poor Saddam may have been fooled into believing that the Americans would never act unilaterally. A rational mind, which Saddam certainly had, would have asked, why, if Bush is so intent on regime change, why is he going to the U.N., where he risks being thwarted? Perhaps he wants to be thwarted, so as to find an excuse to avoid war?

A truly unilateral policy had a reasonable chance of getting Saddam Hussein to “come clean,” but it risked losing the British, whom we needed, not only for their military prowess, but also because without them, Bush would have lost public support even before the first shots were fired. This is why Bush, against the advice of his staff, and against his instincts, appealed a second time to the Security Council for a resolution which he hoped would authorize war.

Perhaps it would have been wiser to seek this authorization, not from the UN – an international body – but from Congress, a sovereign body.  Formal declarations of war have fallen into disuse; and they are not necessary if a quick finish is envisaged. But if the going is likely to be long and hard, it is wiser for a President to make the Congress share in the onus. But of course, in those days, hubris was in the air, and the road ahead was not expected to be so long and so difficult. 

All in all, I cannot fault the general course that Bush took; I could only criticize on a more tactical level.  

To fellow critics

Hindsight has shown us that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons that we suspected him of having, and this revelation has been used by critics to disparage the war. But I draw from this fact a very different lesson, one that convinces me ever more that war with Iraq, after 9/11, was unavoidable.

For Saddam Hussein, the fear of humiliation and the fear of being found out (that he had no WMDs) were greater than the fear of sanctions or missiles. For the United States, it was necessary, after 9/11, to show the American people that this avowed enemy of ours did not have the illicit weapons that we feared he had. But if Saddam Hussein wanted the world to believe he had those weapons, how could Bush have shown us that he did not have them, except through force? If the only thing that could have allayed America’s fears was precisely that which would provoke Saddam’s, then how could a clash have been avoided? The onus is on the critic to provide the answer. 

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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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