George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A very often quoted and wise saying but all too often it is used inappropriately. The questions that must be asked are who wrote the history and just how credible is it. If the history of the Iraqi liberation were written today for students 20 years from now, it would seem to be a marvel of human idiocy. As the Iraqi war wore on a cottage industry grew up making lots of money for reporters who no longer reported the news but actually became the news.
The “unnecessary war” became the often-quoted mantra, or the “dumb war” as Obama has called it. Book after book reached for a higher level of condemnation of the whole enterprise. The mildest versions held it was a tragic mistake, a feature of Bush’s hubris. Many others reached for the conspiracy theories…Iraqi oil etc. These of course are very popular in the Arab world. Some ranged from Saddam was working for us (and we got tired of him) to we invaded at Israel’s behest to take Iraq out as a threat to Israel. But there are Western PhD’s who spout the same nonsense. They are teaching our students. Perhaps this reinforces the view that education should never be equated to wisdom. A very wise old historian from Duke University, Dr Holley,” who lectured my classes at the US Army Special Warfare Center always brought up the examples of the maligned British generals of World War I, often termed the ‘donkeys.”
He pointed out that criticizing these Generals in the light of what we know now was of no value. We must project ourselves in their environment with all the considerations and pressures existing at the time. Particularly in this age we are guilty of cronocentrism, judging actions of the past within the sphere of our own narrow historical prism. So it will be with Iraq unless others re-examine the actions within the knowledge existing at the time.
First of all to my knowledge there was not a single reputable intelligence agency that doubted Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Of course there are always those who come out of the wood work and retroactively claim their report or assessments were ignored. There can be no doubt that Saddam intended to construct a WMD program and after the inspectors left that is exactly what he planned to do.
In the final report of the inspection team, the team assessed that the “strategic intent” of Saddam was to build these weapons. While the news media with more than a little political agenda involved loudly proclaimed the obvious. No WMD was found. Left unreported was that Saddam had the most important element of a program still intact after all the inspections…over a thousand scientists ( all Iraqis by the way….no Russians etc there) were still on the ground. The brains were still there. As an aside, never, think that the Iraqis or Iranians can’t do these things without Russian or Western help). We delude ourselves in thinking that.
Most convincing to me was that prior to the liberation of Iraq I took my class to the Middle East Institute in Washington, where new met with Charles Duelfer, who became the survey team chief after David Kay left. He told us point blank that there was no doubt in his mind that Saddam had WMD. Even the close associates of Saddam did not know the truth and despite being told by Saddam in their meetings that Iraq did not have WMD, few believed him. Saddam trusted no one, not even his own family, particularly after two sons-in-law ran off to Jordan with his two oldest daughters. One was in charge of the WMD program and freely admitted the Iraqi quest for nuclear weapons.
Based on the above and the fact that Saddam had a stark record of misjudgments and rapacious designs on his neighbors, would it have been better for Bush to simply kick the can down the road as we see Obama do and hope that the problem erupted on someone else’s watch? How many of you think we would have attacked Iraq in 1991 if we knew he had WMD? So today we would be left with a Persian Gulf on the Arab side dominated by Saddam. He would have his hands on most of the world’s oil taps.
Of course the argument against all the above is that had we left Saddam alone to continue to butcher his people and others, he would be a buttress against a nuclear Iran….with the added argument that we now have an Iranian-friendly government in Iraq…a virtual ally of the Iranians. Moreover and most importantly we would have saved 5000 American lives and many more Iraqi. To these arguments I say the present tentative alliance of Iraq and Iran will last only so long as Iraq is struggling to get back on its feet. The Iraqi Arabs, including the Shi’a, have an embedded animosity toward the Persians and the alliance of convenience is of short duration. In looking at the nuclear question, Iran, despite its hegemonic designs has a government characterized by divisions and centers of power, It is doubtful that any one Iranian could alone order the use of a nuclear weapon but in Iraq one man, Saddam could, and his history does not indicate any particular reticence to use whatever he had, chemical weapons, missiles against urban centers etc. If we are not comfortable with a nuclear Iran would we be more comfortable with a nuclear Iraq and Iran?
In the final analysis Iraq may have been a “tragic mistake” just like Mc Namara termed the Vietnam War a tragic mistake, and one that cost us far more lives. But decades after the Vietnam War we are still not too sure. Decades after the Iraq war we still will be unable to say with clarity that Iraq was a tragic mistake. Hopefully there will enough less ideologically oriented historians to get into the shoes of those who put us into Iraq and give a balanced assessment.
There are two more myths which need to be assessed. One is the supposed huge mistake of disbanding the Iraqi Army and the second one is the eradication of the Ba’ath party in Iraq. I’ll deal with those in subsequent blogs.