My brothers John, Jim and Brian have been carrying on an e-mail discussion on the Iraq war, that has spread into areas of public policy, religion, philosophy, politics, and human nature. As a means of kicking off this blog, and in an attempt to re-focus the discussion, I'd like to offer my take on President Bush and the Iraq War.
When judging whether the USA should have invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, it's important to recall the geopolitical setting at that time, and in the months leading up to the invasion. Less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the USA, along with the UK and a coalition of other nations, had invaded Afghanistan. By the end of November 2001, the Taliban had been swept from power, and al Qaeda had been driven into hiding. Osama bin Laden had escaped from the battle of Tora Bora, and was presumed to be hiding somewhere near the Pakistan border.
President Bush had made clear in several speeches, however, that the American war effort was not focused solely on Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda. He was committed to defeating every terrorist group of global reach, and the states that supported them. In his 2002 State of the Union address, he named Iraq, Iran and Korea as an "axis of evil" -- particularly noting their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
In 2002, the idea that Iraq had WMDs was not at all controversial. Saddam Hussein had certainly used chemical weapons in the past, and had been trying to produce weapons-grade plutonium since the late 1970s. He was in clear violation of nearly all 16 points of the cease-fire agreement that ended Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He was stonewalling UN weapons inspectors. His armed forces were consistently firing on US surveillance aircraft flying over the Kurdish regions in the north.
Iraq was also on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, having sponsored various terrorist groups, particularly the Abu Nidal Organization. The Iraqi government paid reward money to the families of suicide bombers that attacked Israel. To be sure, Iraq was not linked to al Qaeda, and had no role in the planning or execution of the 9/11 attacks -- nor did the Bush administration claim that they did.
Regime change in Iraq had been US policy since 1998, when President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act. Economic sanctions had been imposed on Iraq since the first Gulf War, and many activists had been complaining that the sanctions had no effect on Saddam Hussein, but were causing shortages of food and health care for the Iraqi citizenry. It was later learned that abuses and corruption in the United Nations "oil for food program" were allowing Hussein to work around the sanctions.
Throughout 2002, President Bush stepped up diplomatic pressure on Saddam Hussein, while staging troops and supplies for possible military action. He had mixed success in the diplomatic effort. Many nations that had supported the invasion of Afghanistan (without UN authorization) were unwilling to support military action against Iraq. However, in November, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, which restated the cease-fire terms of the first Gulf War, and called for "serious consequences" if Iraq remained in material breach.
So that was the lay of the land at the beginning of 2003. Hussein was still stonewalling weapons inspectors, and was clearly in material breach of many points of Resolution 1441. There were conflicting reports on Iraqi WMDs. Some intelligence analysts believed that they had largely been destroyed since 1991, while others believed there were hidden stockpiles. Saddam Hussein himself seemed to be trying to bluff the issue, simultaneously claiming that they had all been destroyed, and threatening to use them against US troops if an invasion took place. Leaders from both parties are clearly on the record from this period as believing that WMDs were either stockpiled or being pursued.
At the time, I supported the invasion, and I still do, although I recognize it was a close call. To have backed down after the military buildup and diplomatic pressure would have greatly damaged American credibility in the greater War on Terror. However, I think President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld failed to prepare the American public for the real costs in blood and treasure, and that failure led to the rapid decline of public support.
But while the rectitude of the initial invasion may have been a close call, the idea of subsequently abandoning the cause, as Senator Obama, Senator Reid and other prominent Democrats called for, never made sense to me. Nor am I persuaded by the arguments that President Bush deliberately misled the American people. He (and I) may have been mistaken, but I don't see any reason to believe he was duplicitous.