What Obama Says About Iraq, What Iraq Says About Obama

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2008

In the September 26 presidential debate, Barack Obama defended himself against charges that he had been wrong about the Iraq “surge” by arguing that John McCain had been wrong about the Iraq war to begin with. McCain, Obama claimed, was pretending that the war started in 2007 rather than 2003. This theme has been a common feature of the Democratic campaign for some time now. Obama had, after all, declared his opposition to the war in the fall of 2002, and had (in his own view) been proven right by events.

Unfortunately, constant repetition of the flat assertion that McCain was “wrong” about the initial decision to invade Iraq betrays an unwarranted confidence and a troubling lack of what liberals usually like to call “nuance” in Obama’s thinking.

Leave aside the fact that Obama’s running mate, allegedly chosen for his superior understanding and judgment in foreign affairs, also supported the initial decision to invade Iraq. Focus instead on the difficult balance of costs and benefits that characterize the war in Iraq.

The costs, as of now, include first and foremost over 4,000 U.S. war dead, tens of thousands wounded, and at least 80,000 Iraqis killed during the war. Only a small fraction of these tragic human losses were incurred during the initial invasion. The vast bulk were incurred during the subsequent years of occupation and insurgency. To the degree that blunders of policy and execution contributed to that toll—and there is every reason to believe they contributed heavily—they must be separated from one’s assessment of the initial costs of invasion.

The costs have also included diplomatic strains with some key allies and public relations debacles flowing from isolated abuses like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Like the other human costs, most of the scandals came after the invasion and resulted at least partially from flawed counter-insurgency execution. The diplomatic strains, on the other hand, flowed from the invasion itself. While not inconsiderable, those strains have been mitigated, if not superseded, by the accession to power of pro-U.S. governments in France, Germany, and Canada since 2003. Indeed, in 2008 it is hard to argue against the proposition that traditional allies are friendlier now than they were before the invasion.

There has undoubtedly been a cost exacted on U.S. military resources and readiness. Likewise, political attention has been focused on Iraq at the expense of other rising challenges such as China, Russia, and Hugo Chavez’s bid for anti-American hegemony in Latin America. However, Obama’s claim that Bush administration efforts in Iraq distracted attention from Afghanistan, while also undoubtedly true to a degree, fall short. For one thing, neither Obama nor any other Democrat has argued that anywhere near all of the 150,000-plus U.S. troops in Iraq at peak deployment would or should have been deployed in Afghanistan instead; a shift of around 30,000 seems to be the most common proposal. Perhaps this situation highlights that the biggest mistake of the last seven years in terms of military resources was neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but the reluctance of Congress and the administration to add 50,000 men to the size of the Army and Marine Corps in 2001. And, of course, had President Obama focused on Afghanistan as thoroughly as President Bush focused on Iraq, China, Russia, and Venezuela would have been just as unchecked.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq undoubtedly stimulated al Qaeda recruitment throughout the Arab world.

And, of course, the war in Iraq has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will cost more before it is done.

On the benefit side, Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had been at war with the United States more or less continuously from January 1991 until it fell in April 2003, was destroyed. He is dead and unable to do further harm. His sons, into whose hands power would ultimately have devolved, and who were even more sadistic and unhinged than their father, are dead and unable to do further harm. This was a regime that had:

  • killed upwards of 400,000 of its own people (an average of 16,000 per year that Saddam was in power, or 80,000 every five years)
  • started unprovoked wars with Iran and Kuwait that cost at least another half million lives
  • developed extended ties with terrorists, including Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas of Achille Lauro fame; Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the masterminds of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, who was given refuge in Iraq after the bombing; and al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who fled to Iraq after the fall of the Taliban

  • developed extensive weapons of mass destruction programs in the past, including an advanced nuclear weapons program and large stockpiles of anthrax, Sarin, and VX gas confirmed by U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s. Although no large stockpiles of WMD were found after the invasion, the Iraq Study Group report of October 2004 confirmed that Saddam had every intention of reconstituting his WMD program. He had the facilities, the know-how, and much of the material necessary to do so, including 550 metric tons of uranium yellowcake (recently sold by the Iraqi government to a Canadian firm for use in power plants) and a complete nuclear centrifuge hidden in a scientist’s yard.

Aside from the direct benefits of removing this dictatorship from power, the invasion of Iraq contributed to the decision by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi to end his nuclear weapons program and may have temporarily slowed the Iranian nuclear program in 2003. Furthermore, if the Iraq war contributed to terrorist recruitment in one sense, it undercut it in another: Osama bin Laden and his followers had originally been driven in no small part by anger over the presence of large numbers of American troops on “holy” Saudi Arabian soil. The removal of Saddam from power was a prerequisite for American troops to leave Saudi Arabia, which they have now done. Whether new anger over American troops in Iraq outweighed, or was outweighed by, the loss of old anger over U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia is not easy to untangle. And once the war was joined, with al Qaeda in the thick of the fight, it was clear that al Qaeda’s recruiting would be tied to al Qaeda’s success. Recruiting is always easier for winners than for losers. If the American invasion provoked new recruits, American victory has the power to discourage them.

Iraq became a central front against terrorism, drawing jihadists from around the world like moths to a flame. It was not the original intention of the administration to create such a front; indeed, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were slow to admit that a guerrilla war was underway. Nevertheless, the concentration of jihadists that resulted gave the United States the opportunity to inflict enormous harm on the worldwide jihadist movement. The U.S. armed forces have taken full advantage of that opportunity.

Not least, the United States has exchanged an inveterate enemy with what may well become an important strategic ally in the Middle East. Politically, Iraq is also developing in its own halting way into a democratic, reasonably decent state in the middle of an autocratic Arab world. That the transformation of Iraq represents a significant strategic gain for the United States should be clear.

As one can see, it is not so obvious that the war was a mistake. Moreover, the benefits are mostly tied to the invasion itself, the costs to the bungled occupation. Seen in this light, McCain’s insistence on separating the two makes much more sense than Obama’s insistence on conflating them. One must also consider that the choices were probably not war versus the status quo, but war versus Saddam running loose on an open field. By the time Bill Clinton left office, the anti-Saddam military coalition had shrunk to the United States, Britain, and Kuwait. Thanks to Russia, China, and France, the economic sanctions against Iraq were on the verge of collapse by 2002. Assuming the weapons inspectors, re-inserted in December 2002, had issued Saddam a clean bill of health, both the economic and military components of the containment policy crafted by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton would have been dealt a final blow. The major argument of the 2008 presidential election could well have been who to hold accountable for letting Saddam get the Bomb.

This prospect leads to the final reason critics of the war should exercise caution when asserting, as if it were an established fact, that the invasion of Iraq was simply a mistake. Since it was conducted for the reason of preventing Saddam Hussein from doing something terrible in the future, and since terrible action was so eminently plausible given his record, we can never actually know if the invasion was wrongheaded. Saddam and his sons are gone and will do no harm, but we can never know whether they would have done harm if they had been left undisturbed. Had the British and French stood up to Hitler when he marched into the Rhineland, fought a short war and deposed the tyrant, historians would today be arguing over whether the war was premature, or perhaps even a blunder. No one would know the depth of what had been prevented, only the cost of preventing it. The invasion of Iraq either did or did not prevent some unspecified catastrophe carried out by the hand of Saddam Hussein, but it cannot have made such a catastrophe more likely. Hence, it is possible to be convinced that the war was the right call without knowing whether it prevented a catastrophe, but it is impossible to “know” that it was the wrong call without knowing whether it did so.

In the end, Barack Obama’s certitude on this subject is in keeping with his general approach, which does not place a high premium on humility. However, it raises once again, and with greater force, the prospect that behind his cultivated appearance of thoughtfulness lies an unimaginative ideologue, unable to see far enough past the “Bush lied, people died” placards to comprehend the complexities and contingencies of unfolding history.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.