The Iraq War, 20 Years Later

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On Thursday, March 16, we reach the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. There will be an afternoon of panels on that day at Cato reflecting on the event.

As the invasion loomed, there was quite a bit of protest both in the United States and around the globe, and a popular placard at some of the protests was one reading, “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.”


In his impressive new book, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq (Oxford University Press), historian Melvyn Leffler takes strong exception to that characterization. He argues, that, while “the invasion of Iraq turned into a tragedy,” this was not, “as some accounts have it, because of an inattentive chief executive, easily manipulated by neoconservative advisers.” In fact, “Bush always was in charge of the administration’s Iraq policy, and he did not rush to war. Haunted by the catastrophe on 9/11, he grappled with unprecedented threats, identified Iraq as a potential danger, developed a strategy of coercive diplomacy, and hoped Hussein would bow to American pressure. He went to war not out of a fanciful idea to make Iraq democratic, but to rid it of its deadly weapons, its links to terrorists, and its ruthless, unpredictable tyrant.”

Leffler’s argument about democracy promotion is sound. In fact, the democracy argument rose in significance, as Bruce Russett has noted, only after the security arguments for going to war proved to be empty. And Francis Fukuyama wryly observes that a prewar request to spend “several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to … Iraq” would “have been laughed out of court.” Moreover, when given a list of foreign‐​policy goals, the American public has rather consistently ranked the promotion of democracy lower—often much lower—than such goals as combating international terrorism, protecting American jobs, and strengthening the United Nations.

However, it is clear from Leffler’s discussion that the administration never really evaluated, or reevaluated, the central motivation for its invasion: “whether invasion and war were more desirable outcomes than the status quo, however frightening, had not been evaluated.” Central was the deeply flawed assumption that Iraq presented a major threat to the United States and to the region because it might develop weapons of mass destruction and dominate by using or threatening to use them or by giving them to terrorists.


In fact, concludes Leffler, Bush “was unable to grasp the magnitude of the enterprise he was embracing, the risks that inhered in it, and the costs that would be incurred.” Moreover, he “did not invite systematic scrutiny of the policies he was inclined to pursue,” and he “did not ask his advisers if invading Iraq was a good idea.” And no one even “mentioned the possibility that Hussein might not have the weapons they assumed he had.”

The poor guy, it seems, was helpless: “Like many Americans, the president and his advisers could not help but conflate the evil that Hussein personified with a magnitude of threat that he did not embody.” That is, the threat Iraq presented was massively exaggerated.

However, dozens of academic specialists, a few insiders, the leaders of several allied countries, and protesters like the ones holding the “idiot” placards did get the “threat” right at the time. Unlike Bush and his advisors, they did not helplessly conflate it with evil.


To begin with, in order to “dominate,” Iraq would have needed to have an effective army. However, as had happened 12 years earlier in the Gulf War of 1991, its army simply collapsed and evaporated when the 2003 invasion took place. One can’t at once maintain that Iraq’s military forces can easily be walked over—something of a premise for the war‐​makers of 2003, and one that proved to be accurate—and also that this same demoralized and supremely incompetent military presented a coherent international threat.

Iraq might have obtained nuclear weapons eventually—it took 27 years, however, for the less dysfunctional Pakistan to do so. But, even he get the weapons, Saddam Hussein would find, should he brandish them in an attempt to “dominate” or “blackmail,” that he was confronted not by a set of fearful supplicants but by a coalition of opponents that had thousands of the weapons, as had happened in 1990 when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. That is, as 33 top international relations scholars argued in a New York Times advertisement published on September 26, 2002, “Even if Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons, he could not use them without suffering massive U.S. or Israeli retaliation.”

And if handed over to terrorists, the origins of the weapons could likely have been readily determined through nuclear forensics. As Brent Scowcroft put it in a prewar column, it was absurd to assume that Saddam Hussein would hand the weapons off to “terrorists who would use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return address.”

Whether a Texas village has now again become whole may be a matter of debate, but, together with Bush’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan—which proved to be an abject failure and was also likely unnecessary—the consequences of the policy lapse have been horrific. According to various tallies, including ones accepted by Leffler, the 9/11 wars have resulted in the deaths of 100 times more people than perished in that terrorist attack—far more, in fact, than were killed by nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

This article was published by CATO Institute and is reproduced with permission.


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