Thirteen years ago this week America’s military forces were gathered just across the southern border of Iraq, spring-loaded and ready for the war that would begin in a few days.
Many of us hadn’t yet spoken the words that would eventually enter our lexicon – improvised explosive devices, insurgency, and counterinsurgency among other terms – and few had any idea of the length and cost of the war our nation was about to enter.
It was the final week of relative peace, but the debate was essentially over, and the decision to go to war was effectively made.
Much has been written about the events surrounding the run-up to that fateful week. Sadly, most attempt to either avoid blame or cast aspersions. While serious analysis has come from the intelligence and defense communities, perhaps the single best assessment, if not the most understandable, comes from Victor Davis Hanson, a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno.
Writing on the tenth anniversary of the invasion, Hanson contended the war was “predicated on six suppositions.”
First, Henson reminded everyone that we cannot dismiss the role that the September 11th attacks had on the lingering results of the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein remained a significant threat since we liberated Kuwait, but the security environment during those years wasn’t as high as it became after 9/11. “Since there was no direct connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam, take away the security apprehensions following 9/11, and George Bush probably would not have taken the risk of invading Iraq,” Hanson wrote. But the world was on edge, and Saddam was a persistent provocateur who wouldn’t cooperate.
Second, Hanson noted how the nation was feeling overly confident in its military prowess after the swift defeat of the Taliban regime only a few months earlier. “Had Afghanistan proved as difficult at the very beginning of the war as it did at the end, the U.S. probably would not have invaded Iraq.”
His third supposition was that everyone was on board. It’s hard to remember that now, especially since a great many of the war’s original supporters have washed their hands of the whole matter. But at the time even the president’s harshest critics in Congress favored the war resolution, including Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Harry Reid.
The fourth was WMD. Although many contend that there were plenty of other reasons to support regime change in Iraq, Hanson noted how the White House hinged the justification on the “unimpeachable intelligence about WMD” that came from our own CIA and credible intelligence agencies across Europe and the Middle East.
The fifth, nation building, was the goal to establish an Arab democracy to reform the entire region. Hanson wrote, “America would do the right thing and create a consensual government that might ensure not only the end of Saddam’s atrocities, but also … pressure the Gulf monarchies to liberalize and cease their support for terrorism.”
And the sixth supposition, of course, was oil. But Hanson contends this wasn’t so that we could obtain the resource. We didn’t. On the contrary, he wrote, “Iraq’s oil revenues meant that Saddam would always have the resources to foment trouble in the region, would always be difficult to remove … and would always use petrodollar influence to undermine UN resolutions, seek to spike world oil prices, or distort Western solidarity.”
Hanson’s 2013 commentary is nearly complete. It’s missing supposition? Plain old-fashioned fear and anger, and an overwhelming desire to set the wrongs of 9/11 right.
Simply put, many Americans were still furious, and chasing a few terrorists into the mountains of Afghanistan wasn’t near enough payback. If anyone in that part of the world showed the slightest hint of starting trouble – as Saddam was – a fight was bound to break out.
Aside from those reasons, some opponents of the war still cling to that narrative that Bush lied about WMD as a pretense for invading so that Western oil companies could assume control over Iraq’s vast oil fields. It’s an absurd conspiracy theory, but one that must be continually refuted because of both the seriousness of the charge and the number of those who happen to believe it (Donald Trump repeated the claim a few weeks ago).
The oil fields were taken from Saddam’s thieving cabal and immediately returned to their rightful owners – the Iraqi people. Western oil companies didn’t get a drop, and revenue from oil sales finally began flowing into the Iraqi treasury rather than the pockets of Baath Party officials and corrupt foreign politicians who covered for Saddam.
Those who have taken the time to seriously examine the evidence have refuted the notion that the president lied. Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter who broke the Watergate story, and no friend to Republicans, wrote extensively about the rationale and strategy for invading Iraq in his best-selling book Plan of Attack. When asked years later about the “Bush Lied” narrative, Woodward quickly dismissed the conspiracy theory.
“I spent 18 months looking at how Bush decided to invade Iraq,” Woodward said. “Lots of mistakes, but it was Bush telling George Tenet, the CIA director, ‘Don’t let anyone stretch the case on WMD.’ [Bush] was the one who was skeptical … A mistake certainly can be argued, and there is an abundance of evidence. But there was no lie in this that I could find.”
Woodward then mentioned perhaps the single largest factor that propelled the United States into war in Iraq: “If you try to summarize why we went into Iraq, it was momentum.”
Exactly. After being attacked on our own soil, after listening to frantic calls from doomed airline passengers, after watching our fellow Americans leap from burning buildings, after removing a terrorist regime in one nation, and after seeing an unceasing threat in another, we had simply heard enough talk.
Due to the sacrifices of America’s warfighters, many now have the convenience of discussing endless “what if” scenarios without having to deal with the reality of Saddam, or worse, his sons, still running Iraq. It’s unknowable if that family’s continued rule would have been worse than what’s happening there today (maybe not), but it’s certain not to have gone comfortably for anyone involved. Simply said, we’ll never know what could have been, or what toppling Saddam may have prevented.
While we continue the debate, and learn lessons from our failures and successes, we must also remind ourselves that often a clear justification for war isn’t enough. One must have the means, and a clear path, to win, and even then must possess the nerve to hold onto victory once it’s achieved.
When looking back over these thirteen years, we must be completely honest with ourselves, in what we knew, what we didn’t know, what we got right, and what we got wrong.
We owe our dead no less.