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On the other hand, The Kay and Duelfer investigations of Iraq’s weapons programs found that Saddam Hussein did have a WMD research program, and that he was increasingly finding ways to circumvent UN sanctions. Small amounts of WMDs were actually found, including artillery shells filled with deadly sarin gas. The 9/11 Commission found that Saddam Hussein had offered assistance to Al Qaeda in the late 1990s. Saddam’s record showed that he was a dangerous risk-taker. Such incidents as his invasions of Iran and Kuwait, and his ordering of an assassination attempt on former President George H.W. Bush in 1993 attest to that. Given this propensity for risk-taking, it would have been difficult to contain him indefinitely. Since he was likely to “break out” of the sanctions regime sooner or later, allowing his regime to continue its efforts to stockpile WMDs and develop relationships with terrorists was hardly a safe proposition. Finally, today’s Iraqi government, for all its flaws, is far more liberal and democratic than Saddam’s dictatorship. Most importantly, it does not engage in periodic bouts of mass murder and genocide, as Saddam did.
On balance, I think that both America and Iraq are, overall, better off for having removed Saddam than either would be if the U.S. had left his regime in power. But this judgment rests on difficult-to-assess counterfactuals about what the world would be like had the U.S. and its allies acted differently in 2003. The same is true of the opposite position, which implicitly rests on the assumption that a world in which the US did not invade Iraq would have turned out better. Neither side in the debate has an airtight case.
Given that reality, we should be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions about the proper future policy for the United States. Libertarians, in particular, should resist concluding that the failures of the Iraq war prove that we should never go to war except in response to an actual or imminent attack. As I have explained more fully elsewhere, there is a serious libertarian case for a more active military policy. The Iraq war actually strengthens that case in one sense. The 2006 and 2008 elections showed that the voters notice military failure and punish it at the ballot box. This contrasts with many less-visible forms of government failure that are often ignored because of widespread political ignorance. Although far from ideal, democratic leaders’ incentives to avoid failure in war are much stronger than in most other areas of public policy.
We may ultimately conclude that the Iraq war was a failure. But any general prescriptions for American foreign policy must be based on a much broader assessment of relevant history and political economy.
Ilya Somin is a professor at George Mason University School of Law.
The good news about the Iraq war’s legacy is that it has made ordinary Americans far more skeptical about intervening abroad. Like World War I and Vietnam, Iraq showed Americans just how destructive an ill-conceived military adventure can be. This lesson may need to be re-learned every few decades, as the generation that saw the effects of a war dies off and a new crisis (or apparent crisis) prompts a new set of leaders to overreach in their reaction. But for now the skepticism is in place.
Unfortunately, this skepticism is much scarcer in the governing class. A president carried into office in part because of his antiwar reputation has already fought a small war in Libya and may soon try to enter another conflict in Syria or, worse yet, Iran. And for all the recent influence of Sen. Rand Paul’s small band of Republican doves and quasi-doves, the leadership of the GOP is still filled with unreconstructed hawks. In Washington, interventionism is still the default position, even in a time of public reluctance and even in the face of fiscal crisis.
Jesse Walker is books editor at Reason magazine and
The occupational curse of generals actual and armchair alike is fighting the last war. World War I hero Maurice Gamelin prepared France to defend against Hitler's panzers with cavalry and a glorified trench. Critics of U.S. interventions spent a generation comparing each and every one, inaccurately if cautionarily, to Vietnam.
The Iraq war deserves its place in the Hall of Interventionist Shame right alongside that JFK/LBJ folly, even though the death toll and political failure, mercifully, do not come close. Not only did Gulf War II lead to a decade-long quagmire of misery, massive expenditure, and a series of unplanned contingencies (characteristics it shares with our dual nation-building sinkhole in Afghanistan), Iraq was a war not of retaliation but of "choice."
We could have chosen to avoid it. So we're compelled to explore why we did not.
One key factor in America's disastrous discretion was that the overriding lesson we thought we learned from the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo—hooray, we don't have to worry about the lessons of Vietnam anymore!—turned out to be false.
In February 1991, flush with the stunningly rapid liberation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush declared, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." As Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, recalled in his memoir, "Emotionally, the success of the war was powerful tonic for the American psyche. In six short weeks, the bitter legacy of Vietnam had been swept away by Desert Storm. Euphoria permeated the country to a degree not seen since World War II."