Believe it or not, you can simultaneously believe a number of things about the Iraq war and its aftermath.
You can believe Saddam Hussein wasn’t merely a “bad guy” but that he harbored terrorists and offered them safe haven and material support. You can believe that the Bush administration genuinely believed Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and also that the war turned out to be a massive strategic failure. You can believe that the administration believed the Iraqi people would embrace democratic institutions once the Baathist regime was overthrown and also that the project failed, leaving us with a bloody mess.
Not one of these things undermines the other.
You should not, however, believe that pundits and politicians are uniquely blessed with the capability of seeing alternative realities. Yet the way people talk about Iraq these days, they probably think they are.
It is completely rational to hold politicians who supported the Iraq War (and the ones who claim they would extricate us from it) accountable for their votes and policies. It’s an incredible mess. It’s irrational, though, to claim you know what the Middle East would look like had Hussein (or one of his depraved sons) remained in power. Yet nearly every contemporary counter-history of the Iraq War tells us hundreds of millions of people would be living quietly under stable tyrannies that counteract each other and suppress terrorism.
To accept this as a truth, you must also revise history. And Trump’s take on Saddam and Iraq is a complete falsehood. “He did that so good,” Trump told a crowd in North Carolina. “They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. It was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard, okay? So sad.”*
Not everyone celebrates the ability of a government to kill its own people without any semblance of due process, but less-severe iterations of this sentiment are repeated often by anti-war proponents. We made everything worse.
Well, for starters, Saddam didn’t kill terrorists, he killed those who threatened his power, which sometimes happened to include those we might deem terrorists. Whether it was the Sunni or Kurds or Shia theocrats, his goal was to consolidate power. No, he didn’t read them their rights or talk, he gassed civilians (“a little,” according to Trump) and tortured and raped the families of his enemies in his Stalinist purges. At the time, there was an underlying moral argument for changing the lives of victims and with it the trajectory of the Middle East. It failed.
The Chilcot report into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War was published this week, as well. It found that the war was based on flawed intelligence, launched before all diplomatic options were exhausted. This may be true. But as Brendan O’Neill notes, the motives of Western nations at the time were far more complicated than these revisionist reports would have us believe:
In short, the treatment of Iraq as special, and Blair as uniquely bad, and bloodthirsty, does a grave disservice to history — to understanding the causes of the Iraq War, the ideas behind it, the role played by vast swathes of the political and media elite in cultivating the climate in which it could happen and the notion that Britain had a new, neo-imperialist role to play in rescuing the repressed peoples of the world. It tears Iraq from this political and historical continuum, it elevates it above the elite’s consensual creation of a new kind of interventionism, and treats it as a one-off act of madness that sprung from Blair’s warped mind and black heart. It’s a whitewash of the worst order.
The American conversation is much the same. It’s one thing to argue that allowing Saddam to stay may have helped counterbalance Iran or save Christians or avert a Syrian civil war. It’s something else to perpetuate the fiction that Saddam did not export terrorism. If Iraq wasn’t Harvard for terrorists, it was a surely a safety school for top-notch extremists. Not only did Saddam aid and shelter the murderers of American citizens, the United States designated Iraq a terror state for providing bases to a number of violent organizations.
At the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes offers a long list of ways Saddam aided terrorists, including:
…a 2008 Pentagon study, based on 600,000 Iraqi regime documents captured in postwar Iraq, that concluded: ‘Evidence shows that Saddam’s use of terrorist tactics and his support for terrorist groups remained strong up until the collapse of the regime.’
Without any evidence to support his claim, Trump professes to have opposed this war before the invasion. Let’s concede that’s true. It’s worth pointing out that many anti-war progressives and paleo-conservatives — and because Trump most resembles Buchananites, I’ll lump him in with them — do not possess any prescience on Middle East matters because they happen to be partially correct about the Iraqi war’s aftermath. Even if weapons of mass destruction were found on day one and Iraq was a stable democracy today, they would have still have opposed it. They are in blanket opposition to any military action at any time for any reason against any terror state or regime that threatens American interests.
Some segments of this opposition perfunctorily rationalize and justify the actions of enemy regimes, including the Iranian state and Palestinian terrorism. Plenty of people deserve credit for warning Americans about the downsides of the invasion, but Trump-style paleos are not among them.
Nor should we fool ourselves. In a Reason-Rupe poll conducted a couple of years ago, 51 percent of Americans claimed they had opposed to the Iraq War back when it started in 2003. Only 39 percent say they supported the war, 6 percent claim they had no opinion, and 5 percent couldn’t remember.
This is highly unlikely. A year after the invasion, 72 percent of Americans interviewed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll were still in favor. Only 25 percent were opposed. In the same poll, only 41 believed it necessary to find weapons of mass destruction to justify the conflict (as opposed to 38 percent who thought it would be necessary). Support for the Iraq War didn’t begin to crumble when it was obvious we wouldn’t find a large cache of weapons of mass destruction. It crumbled when Americans realized that creating a viable nation was futile.
I regret my support for the Iraq invasion, as well. But the decision was far more complex, both morally and politically, than today’s revisionism implies. Let’s debate the war. Let’s not change history.
*Trump has been using this line for a while now. It was particularly helpful as a distraction yesterday as Hillary, who voted for the Iraq War, was again caught blatantly lying to the American people.