Tamara Wittes writes in to say that I misunderstand Brent Scowcroft when he argues that the Iraq invasion was avoidable because Saddam Hussein was sufficiently contained in 2003. It's a smart letter, though she doesn't contend with Parmenides' Fallacy, and she buttresses her argument by contending that Scowcroft's view is "an understanding shared (at the time and still today) by many in the foreign policy community." This is an excellent reason, of course, not to share such an understanding. Anyway, here's her argument (and to answer her final question, down below, "no, I'm not convinced"): 

I think you may be misreading Scowcroft on Iraq; let me suggest an alternative way of understanding his view, an understanding shared (at the time and still today) by many in the foreign policy community. I don't think Scowcroft's opposition to invading Iraq in 2003 because "Saddam was contained" rested on any assumptions at all about what might happen in 2004 or 2005, but on a judgment of relative threats at the time - the threat presented by Saddam in 2003, and the threat presented by insufficient commitment of national resources to a global war on terrorism in 2003.

It was clear, as you said, that the sanctions were crumbling and the rest of the world wasn't interested in containment, but in normalizing relations with Iraq and doing business there. But Scowcroft's point, made by others at the time and since, is that there was no immediate urgency about invading Iraq. It might well have been inevitable by 2003 that at some point Saddam would get out of his "box" and we would have to decide whether to invade and depose him to resolve the threat he posed; but it was not (in the Scowcroftian view) necessary to do it then, on the heels of the Afghanistan invasion and at a time when we were heavily reliant on international cooperation in combating a worldwide terror network that, for all we knew, might be planning other massive attacks in short order. The alternative view argued that it was more important to devote sufficient troops to Afghanistan, to devote military, intelligence, and other resources to the Philippines and Indonesia, and Somalia and Sudan, and North Africa, and other places like that where radical jihadists had been finding refuge and had engaged in plotting and in attacks. Saddam, if he needed to be dealt with later, could be dealt with later.

So even if you are right that containment was dying, the timing of the invasion was a choice, and one Scowcroft disagreed with. Richard Haass, after he left the Bush State Department, made exactly this point.

The Administration felt, for its part, that the threat from Saddam was urgent, because in the post 9/11 environment they had heightened threat perceptions across the board, and viewed the risk of future WMD activity or transfers by Iraq as intolerable. That risk, in Scowcroft's eyes, was not necessarily nonexistent, but it was tolerable for a time, and his judgment was that the more urgent priority was fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates and putting into place the necessary framework to prevent future attacks. It was a judgment call on what to tackle when, and making judgment calls like that is what national security leaders do. The White House weighed the factors differently than Scowcroft did. I'm not convinced they were right - are you?


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