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So, if it wasn’t about WMD’s or 9/11, how can I possibly make a case supporting the Iraq invasion?

As I’ve stated, I’m a self-professed student of history. Specifically, a student of the Cold War and Post-World War II American history. It is the lessons I learned from studying that history that led me to this conclusion.

The origins of the ongoing conflict in Iraq go back further than the Cold War. It was not just the United States that shaped the world order. The United States was in fact a relative late-comer to world power. Many countries and empires shaped the world order before the United States.

For example, critics of the United Kingdom’s participation in the Iraq invasion accuse the U.K of acting as the American lap dog. This accusation fails to acknowledge the historical significance of British influence in the Middle East and thus its role in creating the established world order. It fails to acknowledge the U.K.’s culpability in creating that world order.

As late as 1921, the British Empire extended over approximately a quarter of the world. After World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations established the boundaries of an independent Iraqi state. This state was then governed by the U.K. as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. The British Empire chose Faisal ibn Husayn to be Iraq’s first monarch. The British re-invaded Iraq in 1941 to secure oil during World War II, occupied the country until 1947, and then re-established the monarchy that would eventually be overthrown by the army in 1958.

This is not to say that just because the British had invaded and occupied Iraq previously that they had some sort of right or obligation to invade in 2003. However, you cannot look at the political situation in Iraq in 2003 without understanding the chain of historical events which led to that situation. If, as I believe, there is a moral obligation imposed upon those nations who bear blame for the existence of a situation to work to remedy it, then the United Kingdom bears more responsibility to provide redress than other nations with less connection to Iraq.

After WWII, the British Empire gave way to the American Superpower as the great defender of western values throughout the world. The world that the United States inherited was in large measure the result of prior action and inaction on the part of the British, the French, the Japanese and many other countries.

The basic history and politics of the Cold War should be familiar to you. The United States and the Soviet Union. Western Democracies and Eastern bloc communism. These are the historical events that people older than me actually experienced. These are the events that our generation was taught in school. These are the events that shaped the world that existed on September 10, 2001.

The nuclear threat made a hot war between the United States and the Soviet Union too potentially devastating. Consequently, as the latter half of the twentieth century unfolded, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in proxy wars throughout the Third World in the vacuum being left behind by departing European empires. Korea and Vietnam are obviously first to mind. They were not the only proxy wars that the superpowers engaged in however. Over and over, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were involved in numerous other conflicts between 1945 and 1999.

Proxy wars were not always necessary however. Often, the superpowers found it more expedient to back a strong man capable of looking after their interests in a particular country. The United States believed that it could give no quarter to communists anywhere. Consequently, the ideals of democracy and self-determination gave way to the real politik of defending dictators and authoritarian governments who were willing to align themselves with our side. For reasons varying from anti-communism (Chile under Pinochet), to stability (need for Saudi oil), to mere proximity (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba), governments (or their opponents) that could at best be described as authoritarian were given significant support from the United States because they kept their country from going “red.”

This is the world that I see as existing on September 10, 2001. A world shaped first by empire and then by conflict between communism and the West. It was a world that had been shaped and supported by the United States at the expense of many of the more lofty ideals that America stands for and believes in. In the name of expediency and stability, the United States had betrayed America.

The United States and Iraq

The United States’ relationship with Iraq during the Cold War was complex. Saddam Hussein’s government was not one that the United States overtly backed. There is evidence however that at various times, the United States lent covert intelligence and overt political support:

  • The CIA may have aided the Ba’ath Party coup attempts which brought them to power for the purposes of ridding Iraq of communists;
  • The United States gave Iraq diplomatic support during the Iran-Iraq War. Post-revolution Iran was viewed as more of a threat than an Iraq controlled by Saddam;
  • The United States supplied Iraq with credit and military intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War;
  • There were a number of instances where the U.S. failed to pressure, or to allow pressure to be put on Iraq regarding its treatment of the Kurds, the Shia and its use of chemical weapons;

Throughout the Cold War, United States foreign policy was comprised of the juggling of complex, constantly shifting priorities. Saddam was dangerous and ruthless to be sure. But how dangerous was he compared to the Iranians? How ruthless was he compared to the communists? Friend and foe were relative concepts. It had only been a few years since communist Russia had been our ally against the German and Japanese states that were now our friends. Iraq was given American aid when the United States thought it suited American interests. But only in so far as was deemed to be necessary.

The United States was not directly responsible for the existence of Saddam’s regime. Why then should it be a target of U.S. military intervention in 2003? The world is full of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments. How is this anything more than a simple case of revenge by the Bush Administration?

Saddam Hussein

First, while most people understand that Saddam Hussein was a bad, bad person, do you really understand just how bad? Saddam Hussein has been one of the leaders of Iraq since a Ba’ath Party coup overthrew the Iraqi government in 1963. He was long the major player in the Iraqi government before he came to formal power in 1979.

Since that time, he played significant to primary roles in the following world events:

1980 – 1988: The Iran-Iraq War: “Casualty figures are highly uncertain, though estimates suggest more than one and a half million war and war-related casualties — perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. Iran acknowledged that nearly 300,000 people died in the war; estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 160,000 to 240,000.”

1986 – 1989: The Al Anfal Campaign. The Al Anfal Campaign destroyed almost every Kurdish village in a vast areas of northern Iraq, displacing approximately one million Kurds. The campaign resulted in between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, 100,000 widows and an even greater number of orphans.

1988: The largest-scale chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in the town of Halabja. Up to 5,000 dead.

1990: The Kuwait Invasion and Gulf War: According to the Project on Defense Alternatives study, 3,664 Iraqi civilians and between 20,000 and 26,000 military personnel were killed in the conflict.

1992: Suppression of Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings. Estimates of deaths during that time range from 20,000 to 100,000 for Kurds, and 60,000 to 130,000 for Shi’ites.

1993: Iraq’s sponsorship of a plot to kill former President George H.W. Bush.

It is difficult to say with certainty how many deaths Saddam Hussein was responsible for. Two million seems to be a supportable number. Contrast that with other leaders who have recently been imprisoned or tried: Slobodan Milosevic: Up to 230,000 killed. Augusto Pinochet: At least 3,197 killed.

The First Gulf War

The United States and its coalition allies had the opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War and refrained from doing so. This may have been the right choice. More likely, this was the only choice available at the time. As I’ll discuss in the next article, at the end of the Cold War the United States was too tired to fully address the issues presented by Iraq and the Middle East.

Leaving Saddam Hussein in power was unfortunate. Many of the deaths that he is responsible for occurred after the Gulf War. Ultimately however, leaving Saddam in power after the first Gulf War is defensible. By leaving him in power the United Nations gave Saddam the opportunity to reform his government. The opportunity for Iraq to become integrated in the post-Cold War world order that appeared to be on the horizon.

Unfortunately the sanctions regime did not work the way it was intended. Through the remainder of the 1990’s Iraq maintained intermittent cooperation with international weapons inspectors. The United States and Britain, under the nominal authority of the UN, maintained sanctions and made occasional air strikes in the Iraqi no-fly zones.

While we now know that the weapons inspection regime worked, there were two problems with it. First, the embargo had devastating effects on the Iraqi economy and the Iraqi peoples’ welfare. Second, it wasn’t a one time thing. It was an ongoing inspection regime that still would be in place today if Saddam were still in power. The inspection regime prevented Saddam from re-instituting his WMD programs, but only at devastating cost to the Iraqi people.

In August 2000, on the tenth anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Madeleine Albright summed up the position of the Clinton Administration near the end of its term: “Much has changed since August 2, 1990, but there is one constant, and that is the brutal duplicity of Saddam Hussein. His victims include his Arab neighbors, Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, political dissidents, and his own citizens. He wants the world to forget what happened ten years ago, and to ignore his prevarications in the decade since, but we must not. We must honor the memory of those who died as a result of Saddam’s aggression by vowing not to permit it to happen again. We must maintain our resolve to lift the siege Saddam has imposed upon the Iraqi people. And we must strive for the day that will surely come when we can welcome Iraq’s return as a full participant and partner in the international community.”

But through the 1990’s and into this century, the words of the United States were only backed up with limited force. There was never any true attempt to remove Saddam from power.

Iraq After September 11, 2001

After September 11 the United States and the world were forced to re-examine the role that active foreign military intervention would play in world politics. A brief examination of the governments that existed on September 12, 2001 reveals that Saddam Hussein ran the most brutal, authoritarian regime in the world. If you were not persuaded by the case for invading Iraq then you probably cannot be persuaded that foreign military intervention is ever permissible.

I respect those people who believe that violence is never the answer. I disagree with that position, but I do respect it. It is I believe a stronger argument than one that says that military intervention is sometimes permissible, just not in the case of Iraq.

If foreign military intervention is sometimes permissible then Iraq was definitely a case where it could and should have been used. Compare again the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Genocidal policies were ongoing in Bosnia at the time that NATO intervened. That is a powerful argument that intervening in Iraq did not have. But, by every other measure, the case for intervention in Iraq was greater than that of Bosnia, and especially Kosovo.

Understand, I am not arguing in favor of broad military intervention. I am not arguing that the United States or the United Nations has a moral obligation to intervene in every instance where human rights are threatened. There is no moral obligation to ensure that every nation has a democratic government. In fact, I don’t believe in the universality of democracy.

For a modern western country I buy Winston Churchill’s idea that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” But for a developing, non-western nation, I don’t subscribe to the idea that an open, western style full blown democracy is necessarily the best way to advance the interests of the people. I abhor the human rights abuses in China. But hasn’t their government, since the death of Mao, done more for the welfare of the Chinese people than the fairly (or barely) functional democracy in India? Japan, Korea and Mexico were one party democracies until very recently. In many ways, the people of those countries are probably better off for it.

This does not mean that I did not applaud the Bush Administration’s late and half-hearted push for democracy in the Middle East. I do believe that the ultimate goal in Iraq is to establish a thriving democratic government. It would provide a model for other Arab governments. It would allow the United States to push our less than democratic allies in the region towards more participatory government and open societies.

While a government need not necessarily be by the people or of the people, I do believe that it must be for the people. A government must have its people’s best interest in mind. The leaders of the PRC do. Vladimir Putin does. The religious leaders in Iran do. Hamas and Fatah do. Kadafi does. Castro did. Chavez does.

Kim Jong Il doesn’t.

and Saddam Hussein didn’t.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal authoritarian responsible for the death of millions of people. He pursued policies which effectively ruined Iraq’s economy and left its people in poverty and ill-health. He had effectively removed Iraq from the international political structure. Saddam Hussein was a danger to world stability.

Saddam Hussein was the remnant of a bygone era where leaders whose hands were soaked in blood and death could be allowed to remain in power because of some greater good that was being fought. The enemy of my enemy was my friend.

As I said, many times throughout the Cold War the United States betrayed the ideals that America stands for. Security issues were paramount and anyone who was willing to not be our enemy could be our friend. Blind eyes could be turned because it was felt that they had to be.

But after the Cold War ended and after 9/11 occurred, we can no longer turn a blind eye in cases that are as egregious as Iraq.

Like it or not, right now it is the United States’ obligation to be at the forefront of geopolitical events. I don’t mean that we are solely responsible for being the world’s policeman. I don’t mean that we have the right to “go it alone” in world affairs. What I mean is that only the United States has the motive, means and opportunity to lead the world in order to effectuate change.

We’ll explore that in the next essay.

Articles In This Series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Wrong Reasons to Support the Iraq Invasion
Part 3: Invading Iraq Was the Correct Choice
Part 4: America Must Remain Motivated to Engage the World
Part 5: The United States Has the Means to Lead the World
Part 6: The 2008 Election is a Historical Inflection Point: Will the U.S. Change Direction?