In saying “if I knew then what I know now, I would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq,” presidential candidates are taking for granted that the Middle East would have been better off had America not led a coalition to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.
That assumption is groundless. In fact, Bush’s decision to go to war seems more prescient to me today than it did the day I enlisted in January 2003. If I had known then what I know now, I still would have enlisted. I would be making that decision as a lower-enlisted soldier, knowing I would not have the power to change any of the ill-considered policies that were enacted subsequent to the decision to invade.
To my mind, this decision should be a lot easier for someone going back in time to be the president. After all, they would find themselves in a position to avoid most of the mistakes that caused the trouble. The question, Would you have invaded Iraq knowing what you know now? should not be confused with the question, Would you have conducted the war in the exact same manner?
No one disputes that costly mistakes were made, especially in the early years. I would hope a commander in chief who traveled back to 2003 would avoid mistakes such as prolonging the transfer of sovereignty, disbanding the Iraqi army, failing to maintain adequate security after the regime fell, tolerating Iran’s explosively formed projectile networks, and allowing inadequately trained soldiers and contractors to run a major detention facility. But I do not see how the leader of the free world, knowing what we know now, could rationalize leaving Saddam’s regime in place.
Saddam Hussein Was Not Just Another Evil Dictator
Difficult as the Iraq War was, deposing Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly an important strategic accomplishment for the United States. Many people are too young to recall, or have forgotten, or perhaps no longer care, what kind of human being Hussein was, or what kind of regime he led. As a result, too many analyses of the Iraq War include the unserious premise: Saddam was a bad guy, but...
There is no “but.” Saddam was not the run-of-the-mill problem that many pundits today seem to think he was. He was one of history’s most brutal tyrants and he was a serious threat to international stability. So the objection that America cannot go around toppling every unsavory dictator is unconvincing, as it assumes Saddam was ordinary.
It would be unfortunate if one of the lessons people took away from the war was that America, and the world, would have been better off if we had left Hussein’s Baathist regime in place. Saddam was quite literally intolerable. His regime needed to go. That point should be clearer today than it was 12 years ago. Why clearer today than in 2003? ISIS should help clarify.
ISIS Are the Remnants of Saddam’s Regime
A while back, President Obama took criticism for making a flippant remark about ISIS. He called them a jayvee team. Soon after, ISIS took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria and began killing lots of people in very graphic and public ways. Polling numbers very quickly showed a large majority of Americans would support military action to destroy ISIS. Obama, it was thought, had badly underestimated this group.
He had. But he was also correct. ISIS is a jayvee team. They are not the al-Qaeda jayvee, as President Obama was implying. Rather, they are the vehicle of the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s old Baath Party. The top Baath Party leaders have all been killed, and the party’s elite units have been decimated, but some regime loyalists survived—a jayvee team of sorts—and this cadre of back-benching Baathists is now driving the military maneuvering of ISIS.
Writing for the Washington Post, Liz Sly reports: “Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.” ISIS’s use of terror to control the population is a strategy it learned from the Baathists, not from al Qaeda.
In effect, the Baath Party became a terror organization the day Saddam seized power. There is video documentation of the precise moment, if you have doubts. In the video you see Saddam has called the Central Committee into session. Then he has a surprise guest address them. While Saddam coolly puffs on his cigar, that guest “confesses” his role in a coup plot, then slowly reads off a list of co-conspirators. One by one each of the accused is escorted from his seat.
What we do not see in the video is the execution of each of these men. That is the key part. The people who have not been called—Saddam makes them pull the trigger. To ensure loyalty, the Baathists demanded party members make themselves complicit. That is how a terrorist state is maintained.
Ruling Iraq with Terror
Until we liberated Iraq, the Baathists continued to rule by intimidation and fear. They videotaped their torturing of opposition figures and disseminated the tapes to terrorize others. The only difference between the Baathists and ISIS is that ISIS has iPhones to record their atrocities.
Within Saddam’s terror state, the majority Shia saw their religion coopted by the Baath Party. The Kurds and Shia were brutally repressed, and sometimes gassed with deadly chemical weapons. Millions of Iraqis were forcibly relocated to better enable Saddam to control the country. The marshes in the south were drained to destroy the ecosystem and force the Marsh Arabs to move. While the Baathists prevented Sunni extremist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda from taking root inside Iraq, they supported such groups abroad to make trouble for their neighbors.
Saddam also commanded the world’s fourth-largest army, which he was not reluctant to use. He started a war with Iran that claimed at least half a million lives. He started another war with Kuwait that claimed about 100,000 lives. In putting down the uprising that followed that conflict, the Baathists killed another 300,000.
Aggression Against the United States
Mismanagement of the state and abuse of the Oil for Food program led to hundreds of thousands more deaths. The Baathists represented a standing threat to nearly half of the planet’s oil reserves. Allan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, advised after the war that removing Hussein was “essential” for securing the world’s oil supply, and maintaining global economic stability.
Some people are uncomfortable talking about oil in the context of war, but a major disruption to the oil supply could cause extreme economic hardship and a significant reduction in energy availability, and it would be the world’s poor and weak who would suffer the most. To address this threat, the United States needed to maintain a sizable military footprint in the Middle East. In fact, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia was one of al Qaeda’s reasons for conducting the 9/11 attacks.
The United States was not exempt from Saddam’s aggression. Saddam ordered the assassination of a U.S. president, and Saddam’s air-defense units were firing on U.S. Airmen almost daily as they patrolled no-fly zones that covered 40 percent of Iraqi airspace.
Today’s problems always seem to us to be worse than yesterday’s. Perhaps this is because they are the ones we have to deal with, or maybe it is because they appear to us more vivid than the black-and-white images of the past. Overcoming this bias and evaluating the current situation objectively is often a challenge. Countless commentators and politicians insist that no sane person would advocate toppling Saddam if they knew it would lead to the rise of ISIS. This perspective seems skewed. It overinflates the present threat posed by ISIS and underestimates the threat posed by Saddam when we invaded.
Saddam Hussein Was Worse than ISIS
Thus, we encounter the oddity that in March 2015 more than 60 percent of Americans polled thought ISIS was threatening enough to warrant a response from the U.S. military, while at the same time only a very small fraction of Americans seem to believe we were right the first time to use military force to defeat the Baathists. ISIS is nowhere near the threat to America or the Middle East that Hussein’s regime was. So I do not see how so many Americans can support military action against ISIS but still think we were wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003.
There was no question in anybody’s mind by the late 1990s that a stable Middle East was simply impossible so long as Hussein remained in power. In 1998, it became U.S. policy to replace Saddam’s regime with a democracy. Unfortunately, President Clinton did not have a workable strategy to achieve this objective. The U.S.-Iraq relationship devolved into predictable pattern of Saddam pushing the envelope, followed by a pinprick bombing.
Saddam was firmly in control of the dynamic. Sanctions had failed. The Baathists were manipulating the Oil for Food program that had been put in place to prevent a humanitarian disaster. America was taking the blame for the Iraqis’ suffering. In an infamous interview on “60 Minutes,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright accepted the premise that half a million children had died as a result of the sanctions, and she claimed it was worth it. In reality, the death toll was not nearly so high, and Albright most likely did not genuinely feel such a humanitarian disaster would have been acceptable. But the point remained the same: America’s failed Iraq policy was causing grief for the Iraqi people while doing nothing to influence Saddam’s behavior.
After 9/11 it should have been immediately clear that kicking the can down the road with Hussein was no longer an acceptable strategy. The war on terrorism could not be fought effectively so long as the Middle East was being destabilized by Saddam. The Bush administration wisely determined Saddam had to go, and military force was needed to make that happen. As I recall, no viable solutions other than invasion were being proposed at the time.
Hindsight Is Not 20/20
Many people today assume that doing nothing at all would have been a better option. In fact, a disturbing number of foreign-policy experts now contend that Hussein was some sort of necessary evil. They imagine he was balancing Iran and suppressing all the Islamic extremists. So while they may have wished he’d have been a little nicer, they feel we were still pretty lucky to have had him around. Aside from being a depressingly cynical approach to foreign policy, this view is demonstrably inaccurate.
If Saddam was the cork bottling up all the chaos that later came rushing out, he was certainly a very leaky cork. Did Saddam “balance” Iran during the ’80s, or did he start a war that claimed more than half a million lives? When the Iraqi Kurds were fighting a civil war in the mid-’90s, were the Baathists offering their regional balancing services, or were they fueling the bloodshed? When Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, was blowing up embassies, hijacking planes, and killing U.S. servicemen, where were the Baathists and why weren’t they holding these Shia radicals in check?
Hussein was not a U.S. ally and he did nothing at all to shape the region in our favor. Nor could any sane assessment of his 24-year official reign conclude that he was in any imaginable way a stabilizing force in the region. Yet, the popular view today is that if President Bush had only left him alone, two of the Middle East’s biggest problems—Iran and Islamic extremism—would be solved.
Sen. Marco Rubio is correct when he says the world is better off for the United States’ removing Hussein from power. This should not be controversial. Given everything we know about the Baathist regime, we have every reason to believe the past 12 years would have been significantly worse with Saddam still in control of Iraq.
The Arab Spring almost certainly would have been a blood bath; there would be no promising seed of democracy growing in Tunisia, or potential reformer in Egypt; we would not be talking about a potential Kurdish state, but more likely of a Kurdish genocide; Iran would not even be pretending to negotiate an end to its nuclear program, but would be arming to the teeth to “balance” Saddam; Qaddafi would not have relinquished his weapons of mass destruction program, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb likely would be in possession of them today; terrorists with international reach would likely be benefitting from Saddam’s support; at the very least American counter-terror forces would find the Middle East a much more challenging environment to conduct their work. And without question Iraq would be in a far worse state than it is today.
Over-reluctance by America to use military force will not make the world a better and more peaceful place. There are real dangers in the world that will not go away except by force, and the greatest dangers require a great force, which only the United States possesses.