Most people probably agree, these days, that the military invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Whatever you thought at the time (and I was among those who believed it was worth the effort in light of Saddam’s actions and the realization of our vulnerability after 9/11), the evidence since has been pretty clear.
Forced replacement of a tyrannical dictator with a liberal democracy sharing our values in the Middle East was simply beyond us. There were plenty who made this argument at the time and they were right. Of course no one can see the future, but they guessed right about this while others, the administration included, didn’t.
If he had it to do over again, I suspect President Bush would have taken a pass. But you don’t get do-overs in life and presidents have to choose based on the best available information, though that may not, as we now know, be very good at all. The idea that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction was a notion Saddam had apparently worked hard to project to the rest of the world and he was quite convincing – at least to our intelligence services and to many others in the West.
Arguments that the administration distorted or lied about the intelligence will never be put to rest in some quarters, of course, but such claims aren’t credible except to partisans and conspiracy theorists. The mistake the Bush administration made was in believing it could pull this off quickly, surgically and effectively – before we and the wider world lost the stomach for the difficulties involved.
But the discovery, after the fact, that there really were no WMD to be found undermined everything. The administration had pitched so much of its argument on the threat posed by WMD in Saddam’s hands that the discovery that he had actually had none wiped away any residual recognition that he was an aggressive tyrant who at one point had WMD; used them; and clearly was aiming to get hold of them again – and that all of these factors did make him a danger in his neighborhood.
Why should that have mattered to us? For starters, the region is a source of the oil that fuels our global economy. It’s also smack dab in the middle of international commercial routes. The Middle East has always stood at the crossroads of international trade. If not the most hospitable region in the world, it’s still a transport hub with the Suez Canal, in modern times, providing a significant shortcut for ships passing between Europe and Asia.
So the Middle East is vital in a number of ways and a dictator out to control it cannot be lightly ignored. Still, Saddam was not only a budding hegemonist, he was a bulwark against that other hegemonist, Iran. So Saddam was a bulwark that our intervention removed. There were many who warned against this consequence, too.
Although there’s no way to know what the world would have looked like had we chosen another path (leaving Saddam in place, perhaps, while continuing to worry over his WMD programs and over which of his neighbors he would strike at next), it’s clear the current outcome hasn’t been a happy one – least of all for the administration whose political enemies have used Iraq as the favorite stick with which to beat it over the head. Worse, it has galvanized the political left to such a degree that no Democrat gunning for the presidency today can dare suggest, as John McCain has done, remaining in Iraq until the job is done.
But that’s just the issue. Whether we would have been better off leaving Saddam in place to continue tyrannizing his people and neighbors, while blocking Iranian expansion (and it’s hard not to imagine a nuclear arms race between the mullahs and Saddam in that case), the fact remains that we didn’t.
Yet Democratic primary voters are committed to a withdrawal from Iraq no matter what, and Hillary Clinton and her nemesis, frontrunner Barack Obama, are at pains to demonstrate their antiwar bona fides. Come November, our choice will be clear enough. Most likely Obama, but possibly Clinton, will be running for the presidency on a platform of bringing the troops home, reflecting a clear antiwar sentiment among Democrats, an orientation that has spread beyond that party to infect a large part of the rest of the country as well.