The “givens” of Iraq

George Will directs this question to Republican aspirants for the 2016 presidential nomination:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

The question answers itself if one more “given” is added:

Given that the Iraq war would give rise to a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and to a Democratic president who, among his other ruinous actions, would squander many of the benefits the invasion of Iraq produced.

In his response to Will’s column, Norman Podhoretz says that given the information we possessed in 2003 about Iraq’s chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs, President Bush was justified in ordering the invasion. Indeed, Podhoretz contends that had Bush not invaded, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.

I agree with the first contention, though not the second.

Bush’s decision can be defended from vantage points much later than 2003. As of 2009, we had learned (albeit at great cost) plenty about nation building, at least in the context of Iraq. As of 2009, Iraq’s “sectarian furies” had been subdued. As of 2009, though we didn’t know it at the time, the days when the likes of Saddam Hussein could control the furies were numbered.

Given all of that, Bush’s 2003 decision could as easily be defended as assailed. The merits depended on whether the clear benefits resulting from the decision outweighed the considerable costs.

But if, as seems likely, many of the benefits will be lost because of President Obama’s determination, based on a combination of political and ideological considerations, to flee Iraq, then quite clearly, from the current vantage point, the U.S. would have been better off not invading.

JOHN adds: When people pose “what if” questions about Iraq, they generally assume that if we had done nothing, Iraq in 2014 would look like Iraq in 2003. But that is almost certainly false. Why would Saddam have been any more secure against the tide of Islamic extremism than Assad?

And in 2003, the UN-imposed sanctions were rapidly falling apart. If we had done nothing, the sanctions would have wound down and Iraq would have resumed selling vast quantities of oil on the world market. That would have funded the return of Saddam’s WMD programs, including his nuclear effort. Along with worrying about the development of nuclear arms in Iran, we would be worrying, today, about Saddam obtaining nukes. Recall that Iraq had made substantial progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons prior to the first Gulf war, and Saddam never gave up that ambition (This is, I think, a good summary.) So in my view, the idea that the current disasters would have been avoided if only we had left Saddam alone in 2003 is an illusion.

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