But even this, in some ways, misses the point. Because even if the intelligence on Iraqi WMD had been stronger, the Iraq War would still have been a colossal mistake. Let’s imagine that Bush had possessed irrefutable proof that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. Those weapons would still have presented no grave threat to the United States. As Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, chemical and biological weapons aren’t really weapons of mass destruction. “In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells” while “biological weapons … have rarely done great harm.” Yes, Saddam had used chemical weapons against the defenseless Kurds and, with American assistance, to counter Tehran’s manpower advantage during the Iran-Iraq War. He had also used them to put down a Shiite rebellion in the aftermath of the Gulf War. But he had never used them against the United States, even during the Gulf War—probably because America’s response would have been ferocious. And the 9/11 Commission repudiated Bush administration claims that Saddam might have given unconventional weapons to al-Qaeda, an organization he feared and disdained.
The evidence of Saddam’s nuclear program was weakest of all. But even if that evidence had been stronger, there were still far less costly ways than invasion of responding to a country whose economic and military power had been ravaged by more than a decade of sanctions.
By implying that the only problem with the Iraq War was faulty intelligence, Marco Rubio implies that when the United States has compelling evidence that a hostile dictator is building “weapons of mass destruction,” the correct response is war. This represents a dramatic departure from historical American practice. In the 1940s, Harry Truman—a president Rubio admires—watched Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers in modern history, build not just chemical and biological weapons, but a nuclear bomb. And yet Truman did not attack the U.S.S.R. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy, another Rubio favorite, watched Mao Zedong build a nuclear weapon, and made the same decision.
Truman and Kennedy judged that, while nuclear proliferation was bad, attacking countries that posed no immediate threat to the United States was worse. They made that judgment, in part, because earlier generations of Americans, remembering Pearl Harbor, considered preventive war—an unprovoked attack against an adversary simply because it could become a threat one day—to be immoral and un-American. And they made it because they feared that the consequences of such wars would be devastating.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, experts in and outside the Bush administration expressed the same fears. A November 2002 National Defense University report argued that occupying Iraq “will be the most daunting and complex task the U.S. and the international community will have undertaken since the end of World War II.” A collection of experts at the Army War College warned that the “possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious.” White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey publicly mused that rebuilding postwar Iraq might cost $200 billion. He was reprimanded, then fired. And yet the White House plunged ahead.