Jeb Bush tangled himself up recently when he tried to answer a dumb question on the intelligence failures about Iraq’s WMDs and their role in going to war with Saddam Hussein in 2003. I’m not interested in the media’s usual pointless chatter about the incident, or in the other Republican hopefuls who circled to plunge a spear in Jeb like the Greeks jabbing the dead Hector. More troubling is the continuing dumbing down of the context and circumstances that surrounded the decision to go to war.
Start first with the mood of the country in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. After the shock and grief came the recriminations about the government’s failure to “connect the dots” and anticipate an attack that al Qaeda had telegraphed in word and bloody deed for nearly a decade. And that destruction had been wrought by a mere 19 terrorists, who armed only with box cutters had killed 3000 and injured 6000 Americans, and cost the economy $2 trillion, according to one estimate. No one wanted to find out what havoc terrorists armed with WMDs could wreak.
In the case of Iraq, there were many “dots” the connection of which pointed to just such a much greater disaster. Saddam Hussein had a long record of attacking his neighbors and slaughtering his own people, and he had used chemical weapons during the war with Iran and on Iraqi Kurds. He had serially violated 16 U.N. resolutions and the terms of the first Gulf War cease-fire agreement. For most of the 1990s he had evaded his responsibility under those resolutions and agreements to disclose his WMD facilities and stockpiles, until in 1998 he simply kicked the weapons inspectors out of the country. The sanctions regime, which was supposed to change his behavior, had become a farce. Hussein claimed the sanctions had killed a million children, creating a public relations nightmare for the U.S., all the while the corrupt U.N. food-for-oil program was putting billions into Hussein’s pockets. Meanwhile France and Russia were pushing for an end to sanctions so they could get back to doing profitable business with Hussein and oil-rich Iraq. Finally, Hussein had a record of giving support to terrorists, including vicious Palestinian murderer Abu Nidal and bin Laden’s future lieutenant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and making payments to families of Palestinian Arab murderers of Israeli women and children.
Given the picture created by these facts, the U.S. Congress in 1998 passed the Iraq Liberation Law, which stated “that it should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the Saddam Hussein regime from power in Iraq and to replace it with a democratic regime.” This law was passed because by the end of the decade it was obvious that Hussein was not contained “in the box,” as many claimed. Certainly President Clinton didn’t think so: in February 1998 he said of Hussein, “What if he fails to comply [with the U.N. resolutions], and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.”
Clinton’s hypothetical in part came to pass––just as, by the way, it is coming to pass again in the case of Iran today. Hussein did not comply with the resolutions, but now the attacks of 9/11 had awakened us to the consequences of inaction and the danger of thinking that diplomacy could solve a decade-long problem. Thus on October 16, 2002, Congress passed with strong bipartisan support the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, which was followed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, number 17 in the catalogue of U.N. futility. This latest resolution gave Hussein one month to come clean on his WMD programs and stockpiles or face “serious consequences.” Both the U.N. and the U.S. Congress based these actions on the global intelligence community’s consensus that the programs and stockpiles existed. But where the U.N. was, as usual, simply blustering and issuing empty threats, George Bush, backed by the U.S. Congress, meant what he said.
Another point, as the Wall Street Journal notes, missed in the current revisiting of the Iraq war is that the Congressional authorization had several casus belli other than just WMDs: Hussein’s “brutal repression of its civilian population,” its “continuing hostility toward, and willingness to attack, the United States,” its willingness “to aid and harbor other international terrorist organizations, including organizations that threaten the lives and safety of United States citizens,” and its numerous breaches of international law and U.N. resolutions were all part of the resolution. Perhaps in peaceful times such aggression could be overlooked, and such threatening resolutions dismissed as political rhetoric. But after 9/11, few people were in the mood to roll the dice that a proven psychopathic murderer with suspected WMD capabilities and a track record of using them could be safely ignored. When the war began in March 2003, 72% of Americans thought it was the right decision.
In the end, of course, large stockpiles were not discovered, though evidence of programs and some munitions were found. Last year, for example, the New York Times reported that from 2004 to 2011, American troops had encountered 5000 “chemical warheads, shells, and aviation bombs.” Additionally, two tons of low-enriched uranium were removed in 2004, and the head of Saddam’s centrifuge program turned over blueprints and components for centrifuges he had buried in his garden. As the 2004 report of the Iraq Survey Group wrote, “There is an extensive, yet fragmentary and circumstantial, body of evidence suggesting that Saddam pursued a strategy to maintain a capability to return to WMD after sanctions were lifted.”
Yet what critics continually ignore is the fact that the only reason they can rail that Hussein did not possess WMDs––a fact no intelligence agency or years of U.N. inspections had been able to determine–– is because the U.S. military invaded and settled the question. If we hadn’t, it’s not hard to imagine that increasing pressure from our allies and critics to relax the sanctions would have borne fruit, oil revenues would have begun to flow into Hussein’s coffers, and those programs restarted and stockpiles replenished. Moreover, according to the Iraq Survey Group, “Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability––in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks––but he intended to focus on ballistic missiles and tactical chemical warfare capabilities.” If Hussein had succeeded, what would have been the consequences for our security and interests and those of our allies in the region? Inaction has as many risks and unforeseen consequences as action, a lesson we learned grievously on 9/11. The “no WMDs” meme that tripped up Jeb Bush oversimplifies the reality of Hussein’s ambitions and the danger they posed to the U.S.
Bush didn’t help his candidacy with his careless answer to a question more suitable for a high school paper. He should have taken the opportunity to turn the question about Iraq’s current disorder back to where it really belongs: Obama’s strategically idiotic but politically driven decision to pull all our forces from a country which, despite all the earlier missteps and bungling, by the time he took office was stable. Instead he reprised our dishonorable behavior toward South Vietnam and traded our soldiers’ sacrifices and our country’s interests for a mess of partisan political pottage. That’s the real point everyone should be making about Iraq instead of rehashing the Democrats’ stale “no WMDs” talking point.
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