The Reasons For the War (Part III)

Last entry on this topic for a while, I promise.

Permalinks to the previous entries:
Part I
Part II

One of the main arguments against the war is that Saddam had been contained for 11 years, so why invade him now. I think that there are three major responses to this objection: containment measures were falling apart, 9-11 changed the threshold for acceptable risk, and the form of our containment measures were increasing his prestige in the Arab world.

Containment Measures were failing
One of the major problems with Saddam was that containing him required a concerted effort with many of our allies. The main thing which kept Saddam contained was a combination of intrusive weapons inspections and the comprehensive sanction program set in place by the UN. With the knowledge we have now, it seems that these measures kept Saddam from obtaining many of the WMD that he desired. But this whole system was falling apart.

Saddam had designated huge complexes off limits to the inspectors, and the UN didn't force the issue. By 1998 Saddam and restricted the movements of the inspectors so much that they were effectively under house arrest. He claimed they were spys, but the only part of his military worth spying on involved his WMD programs, and that is exactly what the UN allowed the investigators to look for. In 1998 the inspectors left as Clinton bombed Iraq. The inspectors were not allowed back in until the end of 2002, under threat of war, I mean 'serious consequences', from the UN. The only reason the UN took this serious step was because Bush threatened to go to war.

This becomes obvious when you look back at French, German and Russian action in January of 2002. At that time all three countries were pushing for sanctions to be totally abandoned. They were advocating this despite the fact that Saddam had prevented weapons inspectors from performing their duties for four years. The multi-national inspection regime and sanction programs had lost support from all countries except the US and the UK. The were only maintained at all because of the unilateral insistence of the US. The UN wanted to totally normalize Iraqi relations. The only reason the inspections and sanctions continued, which is to say the only reason containment continued, was because of the US threat of war. A credible threat of war cannot be maintained indefinitely. With the containment efforts crumbling in 2001 and 2002, war became a much more necessary option.

If France, Germany and Russia had been willing to continue long-term containment, perhaps the war with Iraq could have been avoided. These countries made it clear that they would be willing to go along with containment only so long as the US was actively threatening war. That was not going to be a long term solution.

9-11 Changed the Threshold of Acceptable Risk
9-11 informed many of us that a defensive stance risked disaster. Waiting for our enemies to come to us cost us thousands of lives. The medium-term threat of nuclear weapons being used in a surprise attack against an American city was enough to convince us that pre-emptive action had to be taken. Obtaining nuclear weapons requires state action in producing them. Saddam historically had great interest in obtaining nuclear weapons. In light of the 9-11 attacks and Saddam's 11 year history with the weapons inspectors, many Americans decided that Saddam presented a risk which we could no longer afford to take. Since the containment regime which kept Saddam in check was crumbling, we had to destroy his regime before it returned to its course in persuing WMD. At the time, we thought he had programs which were much further along than they actually were. This does not change the fact that the UN had completely lost its resolve to deal with Iraq, and would only do so when the US was actively threatening war.

The Containment Measures Were Becoming a Dangerous Propaganda Tool for our Enemies

The sanctions and inspections were causing an ongoing propaganda disaster in the Arab world and were weakening Western resolve to continue Saddam's containment. See here , here, and here for a sample. Note the years: 2000, 2001, and 2002. The sanctions were used to stir up hatred against America. They were further 'proof' that the US just wanted to damage Arab civilization. The sanctions were constantly radicalizing Arabs and Muslims against us, while dropping them would allow Saddam to resume his aim of acquiring WMD. Invading Iraq allowed us to destroy Saddam's regime, and offered at least a long term hope of providing a positive model for the Arab world. This was allowing Saddam to cast himself as an Arab hero, fighting against the evil wishes of the US (the Great Satan in some circles).

Saddam's containment was not going to continue indefinitely because the UN had lost (and I'm being charitable here) its resolve. 9-11 had lowered the level of acceptable risk in the minds of many Americans. Saddam's survival after Gulf War I, the resistance he gave to the inspectors, and the sanctions needed to keep him in check combined to make his despotic regime a threat to the United States both directly by keeping our attention on him, and indirectly by radicalizing more and more of the Arab world. I believe that most Americans intuitively grasp most of this, even if they couldn't rattle off as many facts as I can. And that is why we went to war against Saddam's Iraq.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at November 21, 2003 2:13 AM