LAST AUGUST, during my first trip to Iraq, I was struck not by hostility toward the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein—I encountered none—but by a burning ambition among Iraqis to build their country anew. Nothing I saw then and nothing I have learned since has changed my conviction that the war was just. We were right to liberate Iraq and end Saddam's threat to the world.
Still, we have learned some bitter lessons in the process. Our intelligence failed--we greatly overestimated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction while underestimating Saddam's destruction of Iraq's human capital. We invaded Iraq with enough troops to topple the regime, but not enough to prevent looting, stabilize the country, or maintain security. The administration misjudged the natural nationalism of the Iraqi people and hesitated to hand them true power over their own affairs--an error that has compounded the sense of unwanted occupation that prevails in some parts of the country. Yet, while we have made costly mistakes and encountered serious obstacles, the decision to invade Iraq was the correct one, on both security and moral grounds.
BY EARLY 2003, the status quo Iraq policy—a kind of weak containment that no longer enjoyed much international support—was crumbling and simply could not be sustained. The sanctions regime no longer constrained Saddam's ability to spend money as he wished, and the regime was growing stronger, not weaker. Critics around the world were demanding that sanctions be lifted, U.S. and British warplanes were taking frequent fire in the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, thousands of American troops were based in Saudi Arabia to deter Saddam, and Iraq remained in violation of 17 Security Council resolutions. Things were falling apart.
Then there were the weapons of mass destruction. Former chief weapons inspector David Kay has said that "we were almost all wrong," and, at this point, it is hard to argue with his assessment. I am serving on the commission that will examine prewar intelligence failures, and we will get to the bottom of this critical issue. But, while supporters of the war probably erred in depending too heavily on WMD as the basis for their argument, the key word in Kay's phrase is "all." Let's recall the facts as we knew them in March 2003. U. S. intelligence agencies concluded that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons and might be pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Most European intelligence services agreed that Saddam had active WMD programs. Even Hans Blix and his U.N. inspectors, often critics of U.S. positions, acknowledged that Baghdad may have been concealing weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam had secretly destroyed the weapons he was believed to possess, he had numerous opportunities to document this destruction and announce it to the world. But he did not do so.
At the same time, the world was painfully familiar with Saddam's use of WMD in the past, including his chemical attacks on Iranians and Kurds. We knew that Saddam was by far the most belligerent leader in the region, having invaded and pillaged Kuwait, launched missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel, killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, and attempted to assassinate a former American president. We also knew of Saddam's past involvement in terrorism and his hatred of America. And we knew that, even if Saddam's WMD programs were destroyed, he planned to restart them once the time was right--presumably, once sanctions had fallen apart, he had his hands on billions of dollars in oil revenue, and international attention was again distracted. This was the situation in early 2003: The threat was grave and gathering.
But, even if Saddam had forever abandoned his WMD ambitions, it was still right to topple the dictator. I supported humanitarian intervention in order to stop genocide in Kosovo, and I wish the United States had acted—with force if necessary—to stop genocide in Rwanda. In neither of these places were America's vital national security interests at stake. But our national values were: The United States should not stand silently by in the face of massive humanitarian destruction. Time and time again, the world has witnessed vast brutality, done nothing, and then said "never again." In Iraq last year, we ensured that Saddam could never again slaughter Iraqis.
Added to this justification for war were the potential benefits to the region--the ripple effects that a free and democratic Iraqi state can still have on the Middle East. Naysayers have accused hawks of playing dice with people's lives: How could we possibly know that a democratic Iraq would have a demonstration effect on the region? On one level, they are correct; we cannot know. But we did know what would happen if we didn't try. The ossified situation in the Middle East, with its utter lack of political freedom or economic opportunity for millions of men and women, helps breed murderous ideologies that threaten the United States. And the region's autocratic but pro- American regimes are increasingly incapable of stifling these deadly, anti- Western tendencies in their own people. The Saudi regime pledges its love and respect for the United States, yet 15 of 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi. Establishing a democratic Iraq in the heart of the region was, and remains, our best chance for encouraging the necessary transformation of the Middle East. Already, the effects of Iraq are being felt: A major reform conference recently took place in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Arab League has endorsed a reform agenda.
SO, IN THE end, we had essentially three choices—deal with Saddam early, while we could; deal with Saddam later, after sanctions had lost force, he had resuscitated his weapons programs, and more Iraqis had lost their lives; or simply sit back and hope for the best. We were right to act. And we have paid a high price for our noble ambitions--over 800 Americans dead, well over $100 billion and counting spent on the war, disgrace at Abu Ghraib. But, when I stood in August at the mass grave at Hilla, where 10,000 Iraqis were executed-- some tied together and shot so as to save bullets--I did not wish to take it all back. We believed we would be greeted as liberators, and in many places we have been--not everywhere, to be sure, but, during my visit to the country, there was widespread thanks for the coalition. Should we have done things differently? Of course. We should have worked harder before the war to get more European allies on board and offered greater political support to those nations that did join our coalition. We should have invaded with more troops, acted more quickly to stop looting, stabilized key cities, secured arms depots and borders, and established checkpoints in key areas. We should have handed power more rapidly to Iraqis. But were we wrong to invade? No. On the biggest question of all--whether Saddam had to go, by force if necessary--we were right. I would do it again today.
This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine.