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Of those who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq 20 years ago — not just warmongering neocons like yours truly but also plenty of liberals, such as the current president of the United States — most have disavowed it.
A few of the arguments for doing so are strong. Others, I think, are wrong. And one is dangerous, in ways that misshape our foreign policy debates today.
Among the strong arguments, one is especially compelling to me. If nearly every U.S. government bureaucracy is slow, wasteful and frequently incompetent in America, how much more so would it be in a country as distant and complex as Iraq?
The problem in Iraq wasn't simply a matter of faulty decisions, of which — as in every war — there were many. It was of faulty systems. Around the 10th anniversary of the invasion, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction painted a devastating picture of our efforts. Billions of dollars were wasted on projects that were rarely, if ever, completed. Uncle Sam, whose cruise missiles could destroy Iraqi targets with astounding precision, couldn't keep the lights on in Baghdad.
Bottom line: Nation-building may have been something Washington could do in 1945 in places like Japan, under leaders like Douglas MacArthur. A core lesson of the Iraq war is that we shouldn't trust ourselves to try it again. We do better as a cop than as a savior.
Those are arguments about the aftermath of the war. What about its conception?
The strongest case against invasion, other than the inevitable and tragic toll in lives, is that it would merely empower Iran. That was the private view of several Israeli policymakers I spoke with at the time, when I was editor of the Jerusalem Post.
But the case looks shaky on closer inspection. Nobody on either side of the debate over the invasion was seriously in favor of strengthening Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Tehran, as some were in the 1980s. On the contrary, many opponents of the invasion wanted to continue to weaken him through sanctions, in the hopes that his regime would eventually collapse. That, too, would ultimately have benefited Tehran.
If anything, the invasion of Iraq appears to have prompted Iran to shutter its illicit nuclear program out of fear of American power, at least for a time. It also got Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to come clean on his own secret nuclear program — oddly, but not trivially, the most important anti-proliferation achievement of the war.
Then there are the weak arguments.
One is that, in failing to adequately anticipate the insurgency that followed the invasion, the U.S. bears the brunt of moral blame for the misery Iraqis endured. In fact, Iraqis suffered horrifically under Hussein and suffered horrifically under the insurgency, and the force that destroyed both was the U.S. military, with tremendous sacrifices by Iraqi security forces. American troops help Iraqis do so against the Islamic State group to this day. Their courage and sacrifice should be saluted, not disparaged.
Another weak argument is that Iraq under Hussein wasn't a serious geopolitical threat, no matter how badly his forces were damaged in 1991. This ignores the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the rape of Kuwait, the Persian Gulf war, the Scud missile attacks on Israel and the Kurdish refugee crisis, to say nothing of his genocidal assaults on his own people. Hussein also repeatedly made real bids to acquire nuclear weapons, which were stopped only by an Israeli military strike in 1981 and by U.S. attacks and U.N. inspections during and after the Persian Gulf war. In 1998 the Clinton administration launched four days of strikes against Iraq, with the explicit intention of degrading Hussein's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
But if there was one indisputably real WMD in Iraq, it was Hussein himself. Until his downfall, he put everyone and everything he encountered at risk.
Then there was the argument that we could have contained Hussein indefinitely through sanctions and other means. Maybe in theory, but not in practice. The human misery caused by the sanctions against Iraq had become a fervent global cause by the late 1990s. They were internationally unsustainable. They were also easily flouted for the regime's benefit, as the U.N.'s oil-for-food scandal laid bare.
Ultimately, the choice for the U.S. and our allies in early 2003 wasn't invasion or containment. It was invasion or, over time, the quasi-rehabilitation of Hussein's Iraq. This was a Hussein that, as the Duelfer report on Iraq's WMD noted in 2004, "wanted to recreate Iraq's WMD capability — which was essentially destroyed after 1991 — after sanctions were removed and Iraq's economy stabilized."
Finally, there is the argument that George W. Bush and his administration lied about the intelligence. I think they sincerely believed the (mis)judgments of the CIA, which, as the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report concluded, sincerely believed in them itself. "The intelligence community was dead wrong in almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the report noted. But it "was what they believed." The consequences of this confusion are dangerous.
Critics of the war now make the point that the intelligence fiasco wrecked America's credibility. It's true. But no less damaging was the never-ending "Bush lied" charge that, 10 years later, morphed into the "Obama lied" charge when it came to Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria or the suggestion that President Joe Biden is lying about last year's sabotage of the Nordstream pipeline. One conspiracy theory tends to beget another, in ways that are destructive to all sides.
Readers will want to know whether, knowing what I know now, I would still have supported the decision to invade. Not for the reasons given at the time. Not in the way we did it. But on the baseline question of whether Iraq, the Middle East and the world are better off for having gotten rid of a dangerous tyrant, my answer remains yes.
Bret Stephens joined the New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2017. He was previously deputy editorial page editor and foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. He was the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.