Why The War Was Right

So, what do you think about it now?" it's a question I've been asked repeatedly over the past few weeks. The "it," of course, refers to the Iraq war. The war against Saddam may be over (mostly) on the banks of the Euphrates, but it's being refought on the banks of the Potomac and the Thames, indeed across much of the world. Well, here's my answer on whether I was wrong to have supported the use of military action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Let me be honest: I thought that we would have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by now. We might still, but the United States has had hundreds of people looking through hundreds of suspected sites for six months. This lack of evidence should surprise the Bush administration, and should lead to a serious examination of prewar intelligence. After all, President Bush claimed that Iraq "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons." Vice President Cheney went even further, claiming that Saddam's regime had "reconstituted nuclear weapons." The Defense Department assumed that Saddam's soldiers would fire chemical weapons at American troops, which is why they put in place elaborate and expensive countermeasures. Why not admit that these expectations were flawed?

Instead of a postmortem, the administration has been spinning wildly, usually quoting three or four lines from weapons hunter David Kay's report as evidence that it was right all along. In fact, the Kay report attests that Saddam was actively attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. This is important but hardly surprising. It was not Saddam's intentions that we were trying to divine--those were obvious. (That's why even the perfidious French voted 17 times in the Security Council to sanction him.) It was Saddam's capabilities--the success of these efforts--that were at issue. And on that score, Kay's report rejects most prewar estimates. He notes that Saddam's nuclear program was "tentative" and "rudimentary," with no significant efforts to produce weapons or fissile material since 1998. He found no evidence of a "large, centrally-controlled" chemical-weapons program. All in all, the picture is one of a much smaller, cruder program than most experts had expected.

As it happens, I was not one of those who thought Saddam's weapons were the main reason to wage war. In the column in which I came out in favor of military action, in August 2002, I wrote, "The threat Iraq poses is not overwhelming--yet. Saddam's chemical and biological arsenal is difficult to use... and there is no evidence that he has any links with Al Qaeda. But he is a potential threat, particularly if he manages to acquire nuclear weapons. Given leaky sanctions, at some point the world will have to deal with Saddam, nuclear-armed and dangerous. Why not now, when he is weak?"

Those who now oppose the war must recognize that there was no stable status quo on Iraq. The box that Saddam Hussein had been in was collapsing. Saddam's neighbors, as well as France and Russia, were actively subverting the sanctions against Iraq. And yet, while the regime was building palaces, the restrictions on Iraqi trade had a terrible side effect. UNICEF estimated that the containment of Iraq was killing about 36,000 Iraqis a year, 24,000 of them children under the age of 5. In other words, a month of sanctions was killing far more Iraqis than a week of the war did. This humanitarian catastrophe was being broadcast nightly across the Arab world. Policy on Iraq was broken. We had to move one way or the other. Either we could lift sanctions and welcome Saddam back into the community of nations, or we could rid Iraq and the world of one of the most evil dictatorships of modern times. One of The New York Times's best war correspondents, John Burns, made this latter point as well as anyone: "Terror, totalitarian states and their ways are nothing new to me," he said in an interview, "but I felt from the start that [Iraq] was in a category by itself."

Iraq was a threat, but more important, it was an opportunity. "A pre-emptive invasion of a country gives one pause," I wrote in that August 2002 column, "but there is another massive benefit to it. Done right, an invasion would be the single best path to reform the Arab world. The roots of Islamic terror reside in the dysfunctional politics of the region, where failure and repression have produced fundamentalism and violence. Were Saddam's totalitarian regime to be replaced by a state that respected human rights, enforced the rule of law and created a market economy, it could begin to transform that world." I still believe that.

So, no, I have no regrets that we toppled Saddam Hussein. I do have regrets about how we have handled the world, the diplomacy, the war and, most important, the afterwar. We took care of the threat, but we are bungling the opportunity.