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Iraq — what was and what might have been

Max Boot provides an appraisal of the Iraq War, which the U.S. initiated ten years ago. His appraisal is sound; indeed, I agree with virtually every word.

One thing that’s missing from Boot’s account, and from all others I’ve seen, is a consideration of what would have happened had the U.S. not gone to war. Avoiding this discussion is understandable given the speculative nature of “counter-factual” analysis. But one can’t fully evaluate our actions in Iraq without considering what would have occurred in their absence.

I see two main consequences of inaction: (1) the development of nuclear weapons by Saddam Hussein’s regime and (2) the mother of all civil wars, come the Arab Spring.

The first consequence strikes me as virtually certain. Saddam would not have watched his arch-enemy, Iran, develop nukes without responding in kind. His bluff that he possessed non-nuclear WMD might have seemed sufficient in 2003 but for long thereafter.

If Saddam had faced down the U.S. in 2003, the path would have been clear for him to end his bluff and to compete with Iran in the arms race. Given his past forays into this area, Saddam would have been an able competitor.

A nuclear Iraq under Saddam would have been at least as much a cause for concern as a nuclear Iran. Keep in mind that Iraq twice invaded neighboring states. Moreover, Saddam was a high stakes gambler, and not a particularly rational one. He lost his regime, and his life, over WMD he didn’t even possess.

The second consequence of not invading Iraq — a civil war come the Arab Spring — seems highly probable. Syria provides the best model. Like Assad, Saddam ruled, oppressively, on behalf of a minority group. The majorities hated him. Thus, Iraq was thus even more ripe than most Middle Eastern nations for an uprising.

Given Saddam’s methods of oppression, Iraq would not have been the first country to rise up during the Arab Spring. But once Libya fell and Syria tottered, it’s dificult to imagine Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish populations sitting out the Arab Spring, especially given Iran’s ties to Iraqi Shiites.

The ensuing civil war likely would have rivaled Syria’s in intensity. We got some sense of the viciousness of such a war during pre-surge Iraq. With the U.S. not in the picture, an Iraqi civil war would have been all the more deadly. And al Qaeda might well have played a major role in the conflict.

Today, the U.S. is deeply concerned about what will happen to Syria’s WMD as a result of its civil war. This concern might well pale in comparison to concern about the fate of Saddam’s nukes in an Iraq plagued by civil war.

Yesterday, at an AEI event, I asked Sen. John McCain and Gen. Jack Keane for their views on whether, absent U.S. intervenion, Iraq would (1) have gone nuclear and (2) experienced a brutal civil war. Both quickly agreed with the first proposition.

McCain isn’t sure what the Arab Spring might have meant in Iraq. But Keane is convinced that it would have produced a major uprising and, like me, believes that the Syrian civil war is probably the best comparison.

One can accept my view of the probable consequences of non-intervention and still believe that the Iraq War wasn’t worth it. But any analysis of the pros and cons of the War should consider not just what happened after we intervened, but also what likely would have occurred had we stayed out.

UPDATE: For a worthwhile, but different, view on whether the Arab Spring would have sparked an armed uprising in Iraq, see this post by Bobby Ghosh at Time. Ghosh thinks Saddam’s regime is most analogous to Iran’s, which has avoided such an uprising due to its sheer ruthlessness.

But Iran isn’t ruled on behalf of a religious minority. In this key respect, the better analogy is to Syria.

As to the Syrian model — a long, bloody rebellion that devolves into a sectarian war — Ghosh writes: “Iraq already had its version in 1991, and the regime won easily.” In my view, however, we shouldn’t assume that a sectarian war would have played out the same way 20 years later. Saddam might have won such a war in 2011, but I doubt he would have done so easily.

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