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Were We Wrong?

Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images

This magazine supported the Iraq war for two reasons, one primarily strategic, one primarily moral. The strategic reason was simple: We considered war the only way to ensure that Saddam Hussein never acquired a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration spoke about “weapons of mass destruction”—lumping biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons together and making the former appear more menacing by their association with the latter.

But we believed biological weapons constituted a threat only if transferred to Al Qaeda—a scenario for which there was no evidence. An Iraqi bomb, by contrast, would by its mere existence transform the Middle Eastern balance of power, vaulting Saddam toward his long-standing goal of regional domination. To assume a nuclear-tipped Iraq could be deterred—given Saddam’s history of reckless miscalculation and mass murder—struck us as naïve.

Many opponents of the war also considered a nuclear Iraq intolerable. But they believed that containment—the system of inspections, sanctions, and no-fly zones upon which the world had relied since 1991—could prevent such an outcome. We were less sanguine. The further the Gulf war receded into memory, the harder America’s European and Middle Eastern allies pushed to weaken—and ultimately end—the sanctions regime. Inspections, already undermined by repeated Iraqi obstruction, collapsed altogether in 1998. Under U.S. pressure, the Security Council reversed this trend in late 2002 and demanded intrusive, unimpeded inspections. But we worried that, when President Bush’s threats of war passed, so would the world’s vigilance. And, when France, Russia, and China responded to Saddam’s refusal to comply fully with the new inspections by proposing extensions, rather than the “serious consequences” promised in U.N. Resolution 1441, we felt our pessimism vindicated. The world’s long-term will to deny Saddam a nuclear weapon seemed weak. Saddam’s hunger to acquire one seemed self-evident.

Today, it no longer seems so self-evident. More than a year after the fall of Baghdad, the United States has found no evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program. Iraq’s nuclear scientists say there was none. The central assumption underlying this magazine’s strategic rationale for war now appears to have been wrong.

Perhaps Saddam was merely biding his time, waiting for sanctions to be lifted before resuming his nuclear efforts in earnest. Given his history, that strikes us as a plausible interpretation of events. Which is why, even knowing what we know now, Saddam may still have been a threat. But saying he was a threat does not mean he was a threat urgent enough to require war. We lack John Kerry’s confidence that waiting to confront Iraq would have produced a broader coalition for attack. France, Russia, and China would likely always have feared a U.S. beachhead in the Arab world more than they feared Saddam. But waiting to confront Iraq would have allowed the United States to confront more immediate dangers. In late 2002, Al Qaeda was regrouping in southern Afghanistan and launching a campaign to destabilize not only the government in Kabul, but also the nuclear-armed government in Islamabad. In Iran, evidence was mounting that a regime with far closer terrorist ties than Saddam’s, really was trying to build a nuclear bomb. In North Korea, a regime with a record of trading nuclear secrets, was building several.

Resources are finite. To defeat and occupy Iraq, the United States has transferred special operations units from the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Because our military is stretched so thin in Iraq, we cannot threaten military action in Iran or North Korea, which has reduced our diplomatic leverage. The tradeoffs even extend to the nonmilitary sphere. The Bush administration’s refusal to adequately fund security for U.S. chemical and nuclear plants, for inspections at our ports, and for the police officers and firemen who would be the first to respond to a terrorist attack is well-documented. Absent its enormous expenditures in Iraq, the administration could have far better addressed these threats—threats more urgent than a tyrant in Baghdad with nuclear dreams, but no nuclear plans.

Should we have known that the key assumption underlying our strategic rationale for war would prove false? By early 2003, it was becoming clear that at least two pieces of evidence the administration cited as proof of Saddam’s nuclear program—his supposed purchase of uranium from Niger and his acquisition of aluminum tubes for a supposed nuclear centrifuge—were highly dubious. By mid-February, Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced that his agency’s inspectors had “found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to these warning signs. But, at the time, there seemed good reason not to. After all, Saddam had tried desperately to build a bomb before the first Gulf war. While there was no proof he had revived this nuclear program in the ‘90s, he acted like a guilty man—relentlessly impeding inspections, even though such behavior perpetuated the sanctions that ravaged his people and made him an international pariah. Even after he allowed IAEA inspectors to return in late 2002, he denied them unfettered access to Iraqi nuclear scientists—although, by then, the cost of noncompliance was more than just continued sanctions; it was war. And, beyond Saddam’s past history and current behavior, there were the claims of American—and foreign—intelligence. In October 2002, the National Intelligence Estimate, the combined assessment of America’s various intelligence agencies, stated that “all intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons.” We know now that some experts didn’t agree, but few outside the administration thought so at the time. Indeed, even most opponents of the war assumed Iraq was trying to build a bomb. We feel regret—but no shame.

But, if our strategic rationale for war has collapsed, our moral one has not. In the ’90s, this magazine supported military intervention to prevent slaughter in Bosnia, Kosovo, and (unsuccessfully) Rwanda. And, in the process, we learned that stopping genocide brings unexpected rewards. Because the United States went to war twice in the Balkans, southeastern Europe is now largely at peace, increasingly democratic, and slowly integrating into Europe. By contrast, in Rwanda, where the United States stood by, genocide’s aftershocks have helped plunge much of Central Africa into war, killing millions and destabilizing an entire region.

By 2003, of course, Iraq was no longer the scene of genocide. But it remained among the ghastliest regimes of our time, a moral cancer at the center of a region whose pathologies were threatening the world. In the Balkans, as well as in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, we had seen that decency in one country often begets decency in its neighbors. At some point in the 80s or 90s, each region had reached a political tipping point. And, while we did not think the overthrow of Saddam could, by itself, produce one in the Middle East, we hoped it would shift the balance—showing the Arab world’s besieged liberals that the forces of ignorance, fanaticism, and bigotry were no longer on the march.

In the year since Saddam’s statue fell, those hopes have suffered some devastating setbacks. Iraqis, who we hoped (and still hope) will become a model for their region, have proved more susceptible to its pathologies than we expected. Fanatical Islam, America-hatred, and a penchant for conspiracy theories—all forces we hoped a free Iraq would undermine—have instead undermined our efforts to build liberal institutions. And, in our inability to provide democracy’s fundamental prerequisite—security—we have undermined ourselves.

As a result, this war’s moral costs have been higher than we foresaw. The deaths of any Americans, and any innocent Iraqis, would have been painful. But, because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush refused to listen to their generals and send enough troops, hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis have died needlessly. Because Rumsfeld, Bush, and Attorney General John Ashcroft winked at torture, it will take years for America to regain the moral credibility it needs to effectively champion human rights. And, just as incompetence in Somalia led to inaction in Rwanda, the Iraq war could—in a terrible irony—turn Americans against intervention the next time innocents are slaughtered.

With all these tragedies, how can there still be a moral case for the war in Iraq? Because Iraqis today—no matter how scared and how bitter—are, in some meaningful sense, free. From the hundreds of Iraqi newspapers to the roughly 40 new Iraqi political parties to the local councils being elected across the country, Iraqis are developing the independent civil society and open politics that the Middle East desperately needs. Could this embryonic freedom be extinguished? Of course. Given the militias roaming the country, Iraq’s political future could well be decided by guns rather than ballots. If another dictator murders his way to power, or the country dissolves into violent fiefdoms, the war will have proved not just a strategic failure, but a moral one as well. But that is clearly not what Iraqis want. Polls show that most Iraqis desire a democracy with Islamic characteristics and think they will achieve one. Prominent Iraqis like Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani don’t denounce the United States for bringing too much democracy, but for not bringing it quickly enough. And, throughout the Arab and Muslim world, people are watching. They may not hate America any less than they did before the war—for the time being, they may even hate it more.

But, with the fall of Iraq’s dictator, they can finally envision the fall of their own. And the new discourse emerging in Iraq is reverberating across its borders, changing what is conceivable. In March, demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building in Damascus, demanding an end to the country’s longstanding state of emergency. A few days later, Kurds rioted in the country’s northeast, prompting eleven Syrian human rights groups to blame the unrest on “the absence of democratic life and public freedoms.” That same month, a group of prominent Arab intellectuals and activists met in Alexandria, Egypt, where they issued what famed Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim called “a sort of Arab Magna Carta” demanding reform. “In the Middle East today, you talk about food, you talk about football—and you talk about democracy,” a young Egyptian political scientist named Mohammed Kamal recently told Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. “There is a serious debate going on in the Arab world about their own societies. The United States has triggered this debate.”

The outcome of that debate is in Arab hands, not American ones. Even in Iraq, although we must still assist as best we can, our control is slipping away. Ultimately, it is this new, bewildering, liberating debate, rather than U.S. force of arms, upon which our hopes for Iraq, and the whole Arab world, now rest. Americans no longer have the power to redeem this war. But Iraqis still can.