Sunday, March 8, 2015

Iraq: Reflecting on the 2003 Decision to Invade

Iraq: Reflecting on the 2003 Decision to Invade
By Samuel L. Skogstad
February 28, 2015

I recently heard an excellent presentation by a retired army officer who had been close to the top decision making bodies of both the Defense and State Departments in multiple presidential administrations.  Although his general subject matter was the state of the world today and the puzzles and uncertainties it presents for U.S. policy, he stated in passing that the United States had made a mistake in deciding to invade Iraq, because “Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).

That remark kindled my own recollection of that time and that issue, and for two reasons the speaker’s simplistic explanation of that complex decision seemed surprising in the extreme.  First, there is ample evidence that the decision was not made on the basis of the single question of whether the WMD were or were not in the Iraqui arsenal.  At least equally important were the widespread reports that the Hussein regime had committed some of the gravest acts of savagery against humanity since the Hitler regime.  Rape, slaughter and degradation, were reportedly centerpieces of their entertainments.  Their inhumanity lacked any other parallel (since ISIS had not yet been spawned) since Hitler’s regime.  Moreover, Hussein’s expansionist aspirations—with or without WMD--- gave no evidence of having waned following his army’s the expulsion from Kuwait.  He treated United Nations Resolutions disdainfully, and apparently did not regard them, or the U.N. itself, as restraints that needed to be taken seriously.

The second thing that prompts surprise at the proffered explanation for considering the invasion a mistake is that is that WMD include numerous weapons that are not nuclear arms.  Thus it is very reasonable to argue that Iraq did indeed have WMD “or the means to produce them” (also prohibited in UN Resolution 687 as noted below).  Yet many members of the mass media, many disingenuous politicians, and too many uninformed, misinformed  or careless thinking citizens use the expression as if it did refer onlyto “nukes.”  Anthrax, Ricin, and poisons, represent just a small sampling of the ample menu of potentially devastating, non-nuclear, WMD.  And they are examples of the weapons that had in fact been used by Saddam Hussein, against his own people if not others.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates notes in his 2014 memoir: “By 2003,  most governments and intelligence services had concluded that Saddam had been successful in resuming his weapons programs (note this is in the plural).  That view was reinforced by his boasting and his behavior, intended to persuade his own people-and his neighbors-of that success.  The result was unanimous adoption in the fall of 2002 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which demanded a full accounting of progress in Iraq’s weapons and a rigorous international inspection effort.  Serious consequences were threatened for noncompliance.  (My underlining.)  The threats were scoffed at.

Also worth noting is President George W. Bush’s recollection in his 2010 book, Decision Points, (p.236) the following historical fact:

“As a condition for ending hostilities in the Gulf War,” (Operation Desert Storm, 1991), “UN Resolution 687 required Saddam to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and missiles with a range of more than ninety miles.  The resolution banned Iraq from possessing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, or the means to produce them.”  (My underlining.)

And further on, Bush continues: “Over time UN inspectors discovered a vast, haunting arsenal.  Saddam had filled thousands of bombs, shells, and warheads with chemical agents.  He had a nuclear weapons program that was about two years from yielding a bomb, much closer than the CIA’s prewar estimate of eight to ten years.  When his son-in-law defected in 1995, Saddam acknowledged that the regime had been hiding a biological weapons program that included anthrax and botulinum toxin.”

Finally, it may be recalled that, considerably after the invasion, American forces found tons of  “yellow cake,” an important ingredient in nuclear bombs, stashed away in secret Iraqui facilities.  That news received barely a whisper in the print and electronic media.  (However, a plausible explanation has been offered, namely that the U.S. Government wanted it kept secret lest it fall into the hands of other terrorists before arriving in Canada.   It had been sold, if I remember correctly, to Canadian interests.)  So the glib (if popular) assertion that Iraq “had no WMD” is a seriously flawed conclusion.  And as the sole justification for the claim that the invasion was wrong it is a little like claiming that one should not shoot at pack of charging, foaming-at-the-mouth pit bulls, before proving to a PETA committee that its members have rabies.

The foregoing is not to imply that this observer would definitely have made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  In fact, he had grave misgivings about the decision.  Moreover, many honorable men and women fiercely opposed it for reasons grounded solidly in all the information available to them.  All honor to them.  In my own judgment, President Bush’s decision too was made for reasons rooted in facts, logic, seriously drawn inferences, compassion and his sense of duty and responsibility. Right or wrong in the end, this is the way decisions should be made, and after-the-fact over-simplifications such as, “it was a mistake because they had no WMD” does not educate, illuminate the path to understanding, and does not merit much consideration.

Still, it seems to be the assertion of choice for journalists, politicians and religiously partisan citizens who wish to denigrate President Bush.  Such is the way, sadly, of politics.  None of what is written here is new information.  But with presidential campaigns on the threshold, the writer hopes it will remind people of good will to keep their “horse feathers” detectors on high alert. (Dr. Skogstad is a retired professor of economics, a blog reader and contributor and a brother Marine. ~Bob)

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