A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror

UPDATED WITH AN ADDENDUM ABOUT SYRIA, 04/12/18

In a bombastic piece at American Thinker, Silvio Canto Jr. said this:

In a few weeks, we will remember the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.  President Bush made a tough call, and I’m still supporting it years later.

Close your eyes and imagine Saddam Hussein running Iraq.

Over there, Saddam would be trying to compete with Iran for nuclear weapons.  Libya would still have them.

Israel would have probably gone to war with Iran or Iraq by now.

Oil would be $100 a barrel, at least.

Over here, John Kerry would be giving speeches that Pres. Bush left a madman in power.  He’d tell us about his vote to remove Saddam Hussein.

Hillary Clinton would remind us that her husband’s administration said Iraq had WMDs and connections to al-Qaeda.

Al Gore would argue that 9-11 changed everything and that the U.S. looks weak playing cat and mouse with Iraq.

I’m sure that a few other Democrats would tell us about their opposition to Saddam Hussein.

It was 15 years ago, and President Bush was right.  All you have to do is look at North Korea.  The lesson of North Korea is that you cannot allow these regimes to go nuclear.  You cannot give them the benefit of the doubt because they have no intention of complying with any agreements.

Saddam won’t be conducting any nuclear tests.  He is dead and gone.

Better than that, we don’t have to hear John Kerry say the Bush administration passed up an opportunity to take out Saddam before he conducted a nuclear test.

I forwarded the piece to a correspondent who is, like me, a veteran of the defense-analysis business. My correspondent takes the view that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was unnecessary because

Saddam [was] containable, and Iran was an agent in his containment. In the sense of keeping him boxed in, Iran was an ally of the US.

Nuke ownership is worrisome, but nuke usage is way more so. The world, with lots of hard work from us and others, has kept the cork in the bottle for 73 years.

Dubya’s mistake in Iraq was called by his SecState Powell a dozen years before; if ya break it, ya own it. Deposing a dictator isn’t so hard (see Noriega 1989) if you can do it at reasonable cost. Dubya didn’t.

As for what a bunch of faded Dem pols would be saying if Saddam were in power…yawn.

It is quite true that Saddam was unlikely to march his armies outside Iraq’s borders, especially given his quick and humiliating defeat in 1991. But is that containment?

North Korea is contained, in the sense that its armies haven’t ventured across the DMZ since the truce of 1953. But is North Korea really contained? Not at all. It has in its possession the means to blackmail South Korea into playing nicey-nicey. And South Korea — which is now under new, left-wing management — may be on the verge of succumbing to North Korea’s veiled threat. Kim Jong-un, like many a shrewd dictator before him, knows how to act crazy enough to make his opponents believe that he will attack them even if such an attack proves suicidal (for his country if not for himself). In the ability-to-act-crazy department, Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump, but Kim is a real dictator who can and might do something suicidal. Trump is only a crazy dictator in the eyes of hysterical women, feminized men, and leftists, who are projecting their own fascistic fantasies onto him.

Saddam was contained in the same way as Kim. But, like Kim, he aspired to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, at least to nearby countries if not all the way to the United States. Saddam’s dilatory response to UN-ordered inspections of his WMD programs was a casus belli in 2003. The uncertainty surrounding Saddam’s nuclear program is reflected in the following narrative, the source of which is the Brookings Institution — a left-of-center think-tank, and not the kind of outfit that would give aid and comfort to American “war mongers”:

[A] nuclear weapon is something Saddam almost surely does not now have, but that he might someday acquire—and that, if ever used, could clearly dwarf 9/11 in its effects. We don’t know if Saddam would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons if he had them. But to paraphrase Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations, letting Saddam get a nuclear weapon and then seeing what if anything he might do with it is a social science experiment we can live without. Simply having such a weapon could give Saddam “defensive cover” for aggression, fundamentally changing the balance of power in the region.

That, in a nutshell, is the case for a pre-emptive war. Whatever one thinks of this case, it should not depend on advocates producing a “smoking gun.” Evidence that Saddam is on the verge of building a bomb is unlikely to exist, not only because our sources of intelligence inside Iraq are highly imperfect, but because Iraq is probably still years away from any kind of nuclear capability….

… But Saddam is trying to get the bomb. And if that’s a persuasive reason for going to war—as it probably is, in the absence of rigorous inspections that would prevent him from acquiring one—it would make more sense to fight before he had the bomb than after.

… As is well known, Iraq was disturbingly close—perhaps only months away—from building a nuclear weapon at the time of Desert Storm [in 1991]. After Israel bombed its Osirak nuclear reactor a decade earlier, Iraq had embarked on a program to develop less visible technologies for enriching uranium from domestic and possibly foreign sources—its “basement bomb” project. In numerous ways, this effort resembled the difficult and tedious approach taken in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project in the United States, particularly the effort to build uranium-235 devices such as the one dropped on Hiroshima. U.N. inspectors found and destroyed most of the equipment believed to have been involved in Iraq’s effort before the Gulf War of 1991.

When [former chief bomb designer Khidhir] Hamza defected a couple of years later, Iraq’s nuclear program was still in a state of dismantlement. That said, Saddam kept together his bomb designer teams, putting them on other projects to ensure their continued availability and proficiency. By the mid-1990s at the latest, he also had a workable design for a bomb that likely would have been effective, if he had been able to get his hands on fissile material. He also had the capability to manufacture most other critical nuclear-weapon components, such as timing devices and properly shaped conventional explosives to compress the fissile material and initiate the explosion.

In recent months, as reported in The New York Times, U.S. intelligence has gotten word of Iraqi efforts to buy key nuclear-related components. In particular, Iraq seems bent on acquiring large numbers of sophisticated aluminum tubes that could be used to build centrifuges. Centrifuges spin uranium at high speeds, gradually separating the lighter U-235 from the heavier and more prevalent U-238 (which is not capable of supporting a chain reaction and hence not usable in a bomb)….

More worrisome, perhaps, is that Saddam might get access to U-235 or plutonium on the black market, most likely with Russian criminal elements as the original source. Thankfully, there is no evidence that the nuclear black market has yet involved large quantities of fissile material. But as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, we don’t know what we don’t know. Any delay in pre-emption entails some degree of risk—and precisely what degree is hard to estimate.

Saddam probably could not hurt the United States directly with a bomb even if he had one. Even if he overcomes his most serious obstacle by obtaining fissile material on the black market, he would probably be able to build only a few nuclear weapons, and they would be big. That would make it hard to transport such weapons to give to terrorists or his own foreign-based operatives for use against a U.S. city. He might be able to sneak a bomb into Kuwait or another neighboring state with a low-flying aircraft, but the plane might well also get shot down. He probably does not have a missile big enough to carry what would be a fairly primitive and thus large nuclear warhead.

It is possible that Saddam would consider possession of a bomb a “regime survival insurance card” and undertake aggressive behavior as a result. For example, Saddam might try to take Kuwait’s oil field that was the original purported source of contention back in 1990, prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Or he might move forces back into Kurdish regions of his own country, aware that our airpower probably could not stop him and that we might be unwilling to risk escalation by moving in ground forces.

These types of worries are real, if not quite the equivalent of Hitler’s demands at Munich, as Bush administration officials have exaggerated in recent weeks. That said, a nuclear-armed Iraq is a serious concern, and we would be vastly better off without one. Even a war skeptic such as me must acknowledge that President Bush has a reasonable case when he describes the risks involved in Iraq’s nuclear program. Rigorous inspections and disarmament would, to my mind, be an acceptable solution. But to get that outcome, we may have to threaten war, and threaten it quite credibly…. [Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Saddam’s Bomb: How Close is Iraq to Having a Nuclear Weapon?“, September 18, 2002]

(PBS, another left-of-center source, offered a similar assessment.)

But threats of war were to no avail. And so Iraq was invaded, Saddam fell, and the threat of a nuclear-armed, Saddam-led Iraq was ended.

In that regard, consider the usual kind of reasoning against preemptive war, which appears in a passage of O’Hanlon’s essay that I skipped over. After saying that “it would make more sense to fight before [Saddam] had the bomb than after”, O’Hanlon adds this:

However, it’s not necessarily an argument for mounting a full-scale invasion now. That argument depends on how close Saddam really is to obtaining a bomb.

That kind of thinking baffles me. If one is going to preempt an enemy, the time to do it is when he is relatively weak. What is the point of giving him time in which to become stronger? Hope that he will change his spots? A survey of relevant historical examples would find few spot-changing episodes, except under duress (e.g., Muammar Gaddafi’s in the wake of Saddam’s downfall), which makes my point.

The O’Hanlons of this world can’t contemplate preemptive war, so they seize on flimsy excuses to delay or avoid it. The inevitable result is that the enemy eventually becomes strong enough that preemptive war then becomes too costly to wage — too costly for America, that is, in terms of blood and treasure.

Except that it took only three weeks to overthrow Saddam and subdue his armed forces. The mistake wasn’t in the doing of it, but in why and how it was done. The invasion of Iraq was really a piece of the Bush administration’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and should be evaluated as such. Mark Helprin does the job (my parenthetical commentary is in italics):

True shock and awe following upon September 11, when the world was with us, could have pitched the Middle East (and beyond, including the Islamists) into something resembling its torpor under European domination or its shock after the Arab-Iraeli War of 1967. That is to say, pacified for a time, with attacks on the West subsiding…. Instead, we exhibit the generosity of the soon-to-be defeated, otherwise known as concession and surrender. [Surely this blogger wasn’t alone in believing, at the time, that the response to 9/11 was too tepid and limited in scope. Nor that the “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra was exactly the wrong thing to say because it connoted conciliation and squeamishness where determination and massive force were called for.]

Comporting with the idea that if you’re going to have a war it’s a good idea to win it, and with the Powell Doctrine, General Eric Shinseki’s recommendations, the lessons of military history [including the failure of half-measures in Vietnam], the American way of war [through World War II], and simple common sense, an effective response to September 11 would have required an effort of greater scale than that of the Gulf War—i.e., all in. [This might not have been possible immediately after 9/11, given the defense drawdown of the 1990s, when Clinton — with GOP complicity — balanced the federal budget on the back of defense. But it would soon have been possible given the degree of support for rearmament in the wake of 9/11.] With a full and fully prepared “punch through,” we could have reached Baghdad in three days, and instead of staying there for a decade or more put compliant officials or generals in power … and wheeled left to Damascus, smashing the Syrian army against the Israeli anvil and putting another compliant regime in place before returning to the complex of modern military bases at the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. There, our backs to the sea, which we control, and our troops hermetically sealed by the desert and safe from insurgency, we could have occupied the center of gravity in the heart of the Middle East, able to sprint with overwhelming force within a few days to either Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh.

Having suffered very few casualties, our forces would have been rested, well-trained, ready for deployment in other parts of the world, and able to dictate to (variously and where applicable) the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudis that they eradicate their terrorists, stay within their borders, abandon weapons of mass destruction, break alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, keep the oil price down, and generally behave themselves. These regimes live for power, do anything for survival, and have secret police who can flush out terrorists with ruthless efficiency. Such strategy, had we adopted it, would have been demanding and imperious, yes, but not as demanding and imperious as ten years of war across much of the Middle East. Our own economy and alliances need not have been disrupted, our polity not so severely divided, and far fewer people would have suffered. [Many Americans across the political spectrum would have blanched at this exercise of raw power, even though it was probably the best way to curb terrorism against Americans. This squeamish attitude ignores a main justification for the existence of the United States under a central government: the defense of Americans and their interests, which includes overseas interests, not the winning of popularity contests, and certainly not the invitation of further attacks through ineffective action.]

But rather than this approach, which is not, as the record will show, hindsight, the businessmen and business-schooled officials of the Bush Administration chose to run the war according to the business principle of doing the most with as little as possible. [This slam on Donald Rumsfeld and ilk is one that I believe my correspondent would say amen to.] Thus, although war demands surplus, reserves, and overkill, for it is never as predictable as selling widgets, it was deliberately and gratuitously a war of penury, and like most such wars it has lasted long and will bring a frayed and unsatisfactory end. [“The Central Proposition“, The Claremont Review of Books, September 13, 2011]

In any event, the fact remains that even George W. Bush’s botched job resulted in the removal of any threat posed by Saddam. I don’t understand why that fact is overlooked or dismissed. For, as I argue above, Saddam wasn’t really contained as long as he had (or could have had) a nuclear program (or other weapons of mass destruction).

Well, what’s another member of the nuclear club? There are already at least 9 members: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to Barack Obama, Iran will soon join the club to make it a nice, round 10.

If 10 is all right, why not 15 or 20? Is it too many because such numbers represent too many opportunities for a “mad man” to let loose the dogs of nuclear war? When there were 8 club members, there were only 8 such opportunities. With 2 more (North Korea and Iran), the number of opportunities is 25 percent greater than it had been since 1998. How is that at all comforting? When the number goes from ten to 11, will that be acceptable because the number of opportunities will rise by only 10 percent? Or will it be unacceptable because there is yet another opportunity for a “mad man” to do something drastic? I take the latter view. One more club member is always one too many. Two was too many because the second to join was the USSR; one (the U.S.) was just the right number.

A nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. That must prove something. All it proves is that a nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. As my correspondent knows very well, intentional events aren’t random events, and therefore aren’t probabilistic ones. In other words, the past — in this case — isn’t necessarily prologue. All we know for sure is that the addition of members to the nuclear club means more opportunities for something bad to happen.

What about those (thankfully) faded Democrat politicians who probably would have second-guessed GWB if he hadn’t deposed Saddam, and Saddam had joined the nuclear club? Canto added some (perhaps gratuitous) rhetorical spice to a valid point by invoking the faded pols. His valid point is that GWB would have been second-guessed with good reason, because most Americans would rightly have been angry about Saddam’s entry into the nuclear club.

The angry Americans would include a lot of squeamish ones who want their defense but not what must be done sometimes to secure it. (Retrospective approval of the “unthinkable”, such as dropping A-bombs on Japan, doesn’t count as willingness to do what must be done.) This is an unrealistic approach to life with which I have no sympathy, and which courts disaster.

I speak from personal experience. In 1994, the budget of the think-tank where I was chief financial officer was slashed by Congress. The handwriting was on the wall: a few dozen employees would have to be fired. My boss, the CEO, resisted that course of action, in the vain hope that the budget cut would be restored. He finally relented in 1995, with the result that the continued employment of a couple of dozen employees had worsened our budget deficit. And so twice as many employees had to be fired — as I had told him from the beginning of the budget crisis.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. And the cost of deferring action is almost certain to be greater than the cost of having taking action when it was called for.

ADDENDUM

Excerpts of my messages in subsequent correspondence about the situation in Syria and its relationship to the Iraq War:

The thing about Iraq — beyond Saddam and what he might have done — is its central position in a major oil-producing region of the world. A military occupation — without “nation building” or any pretense of establishing democracy — was my preferred solution. A U.S.-controlled Iraq would have brought stability to the ME and sent a strong message to Iran and whoever else might have had ideas about messing with U.S. interests. Yes, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would have been at each other. But as long as they didn’t threaten U.S. forces and interests, they should have been allowed to kill each other. Attacks on U.S. forces and interests could have been dealt with promptly, forcibly, indiscriminately (they’re all “bad guys”), and without apology. If you’re going to conquer a country, then conquer it and don’t pussy-foot around. How long should the U.S. have stayed? As long as it takes — just as in Europe.

What about Syria? Leaving it to the Russians is fine by me, as long as there’s really a bright red line around it. But even if Trump were to somehow backtrack on his tough talk and strike a deal with Russia — Syria is your problem — the next president or the one after that is just as likely to be Obama II. That’s because the mushy center of the American electorate can’t make up its mind what it wants — limited government or unlimited goodies. There goes the bright red line, and possibly the whole ME with it. That’s my reservation about leaving Syria to the Russians.

Unlike the seize-and-hold strategy that I had hoped the U.S. would take with respect to Iraq, [my correspondent’s preferred] containment strategy would have left open a greater range of possibilities. It could have been interpreted as a signal that the U.S. would keep hands off a country (e.g., Syria) as long as its actions weren’t spilling over into U.S. interests (e.g., oil, Israel, stability in the ME). But that wouldn’t have precluded an uprising in Syria, and it might even have encouraged it. Without a strong U.S. presence next door in Iraq, Russia might well have decided to intervene in the hope of extending its influence in the ME. And we’d be exactly where we are now.


Related posts:
9/11 and Pearl Harbor
Vietnam and Iraq as Metaphors
Wisdom about the War on Terrror
Why Sovereignty?
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
What If We Lose?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism

Obama’s Short-Lived “Peace Dividend”

UPDATED 09/05/10

On August 31, BHO declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq. In anticipation of that declaration, and for a few days following it, BHO enjoyed what (for him) is a surge in popularity. His approval index (per Rasmussen Reports) went from -20 on August 25 to -12 on August 28. It dropped to -14 on August 31, but returned to -12 on September 1 (the morning after BHO’s declaration). It has been all downhill since: -13 on September 2, -16 on September 3, -21 on September 4, -23 on September 5.

Our boy president has recorded an unpopularity rating of -20 or lower only33 times in the 579 polling days that began with his inauguration. Nine of those low marks (more than a fourth of them) have come in the most recent 10 weeks of BHO’s 85 weeks in office.

In fact, Obama has earned a zero or positive rating 27 percent of the time; a negative rating, 73 percent of the time. More than half of his ratings have been -10 and lower. His last zero or positive rating came on June 29, 2009 — 62 weeks ago. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that he peaked two days after his inauguration. It has been mostly downhill and in a negative trough since then. Obama’s 28-day average rating hit -10 on November 7, 2009, and has stayed below -10 (usually well below) for the past 10 months.

It seems that BHO will have to keep looking for a way to become popular. Resignation might do the trick.