A liberal defense of the war in Iraq

By Kate Norland

As the Democratic primaries move into their decisive stage and the candidates sharpen their attacks on Bush, we are reminded vividly of how polarized the two parties have become. Yet the issue that seems the most divisive, the issue of whether the war in Iraq was justified, is, in fact, less partisan than it appears. To support the war in Iraq, one need not be a Republican. This article seeks to present the case for war from the perspective of a staunch liberal.

To decide if the war was justified we should analyze two major decisions: the U.N. Security Council’s decision to threaten Saddam Hussein with force, and the United States’ decision to execute that threat. We must also examine both the failure of weapons hunters to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the evidence that Tony Blair and George Bush misled the public in order to determine whether these developments detract from the justification for war.

The first decision, made by the U.N. Security Council in the form of Resolution 1441, was to threaten Saddam with military force if he did not comply with 16 previous U.N. resolutions. This decision was correct and was the only decision the Security Council could make without undermining global security. Saddam had agreed to abandon his WMD programs long ago, but then refused to follow through. After his defeat in 1991, he vowed to scrap his nuclear, chemical, biological, and long-range ballistic missile programs. One example of his failure to do so is evident in his production of the nerve-gas VX. First, he denied ever having produced it. When it was found, he admitted to having produced 200 liters. When U.N. weapons inspectors proved that at least 3,900 liters had been produced, they were barred from Iraq. That was 1998. By 2002, Saddam had violated 16 U.N. resolutions and still refused to let inspectors back in.

The U.N. was left with two choices. The first choice would be to continue using the methods that had failed for 12 years but has also allowed the inspectors the freedom they would need to do their work. To follow this course of action would mean passively watching a dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, attacked Iran, invaded Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia, launched scud missiles at Israel, funded the families of suicide-bombers, and was proven to have and continue to possess, use, and conceal WMD; and shut out weapons inspectors. To stand by while he flaunted his violation of U.N. mandates would have meant admitting that the world’s democracies cannot prevent volatile dictatorships from obtaining WMD. Such an admission opens the door to a world devoid of regional and global security, in which dangerous weapons are held by dangerous countries, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The only alternative, after years of containment and sanctions, was the threat of force. And so the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441.

So the decision, to threaten force, was justified. But what about the execution of that threat? To exploring this we must first look at Saddam’s reaction to Resolution 1441. Did he finally comply with the inspections regime? He did not, neither in the rambling statement he released in December, which inspectors described as outdated and written with intent to confuse, nor during the inspections process itself. Hans Blix, head of the inspections team, told the Security Council, “[Iraq] appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it.” Saddam’s non-compliance left the global community two choices: either execute the threat or don’t. To leave the threat empty would have been worse than not issuing it at all, rendering the global community powerless in its fight against weapons proliferation. So the threat had to be executed, leaving only the question of when.

Why did the answer have to be now? Because with every passing day Saddam’s ability to wriggle away from inspections increased. His tactics were unchanging over the past 12 years. 1) Avoid inspections. 2) Continue to avoid inspections until public pressure was too great. 3) Announce compliance with the inspections. 4) Finally, as public scrutiny recedes because compliance was promised, add caveats and loopholes onto that promise until it is meaningless. Delaying action would give Saddam one more “one-more-chance,” of which he had already received far too many. So when the Security Council failed to enforce its resolution, the U.S. chose to do so unilaterally rather than watch Saddam slither away yet again. This decision can hardly be called impatient when the U.S. had tried containment, sanctions, and inspections for 12 years. It was time to admit that if the world was serious about disarming Saddam, there were simply no peaceful alternatives.

War was justified because the threat of force and the execution of that threat were justified. Weapons may or may not be found. Either way, Saddam had WMD programs when inspectors left in 1998 and refused to show inspectors evidence of destroying them between 1998 and March 2003. If he had destroyed them, why endure sanctions and elude inspectors? The conclusion that Saddam had no illicit weapons programs on the eve of war simply does not hold up to scrutiny, and therefore the lack of WMD in post-war Iraq does not detract from the justification for war.

Similarly, Tony Blair and George Bush may have misled the public. If so, then they have committed a grave crime and should be held accountable. But the intelligence that Blair and Bush are accused of exaggerating is not the evidence that justified war. No one can question Saddam’s violation of 17 binding U.N. resolutions, his regional aggression, brutal dictatorship, and history of genocide. There was enough justification for war without 45-minute deployment capability, ties to al Qaeda, and uranium in Niger. This is no excuse for fabrication; the fact that just cause exists does not give leaders carte blanche to fabricate additional causes. Even so, if the actions of Blair and Bush were not justified, the war in Iraq certainly was.