What would he have done then? He had gassed the Kurds. He had tried to assassinate a former American president. His regime's official ideology was explicitly expansionist and anti-American. It was reasonable to worry that he would reconstitute his weapons programs, and unreasonable not to. What would he have done if he had gotten weapons? Sell them, perhaps; or maybe use them to intimidate his neighbors. (Imagine assembling the allied coalition of 1990-91 against a nuclear-armed Saddam.)
As President Bush was preparing to go to war, the Iraqi threat looked more imminent than it appears to have been. The case for going to war in March 2003 looks less urgent. But if we had not acted when we did, we would still eventually have had to deal with Iraq—and probably under worse circumstances. September 11 had also changed the calculus. It made it harder for a president to ignore or downplay threats to America emanating from the Middle East. It also made the case for a dramatic intervention into the political culture of the region more compelling.
That Bush has made mistakes in Iraq is an understatement. Defense and State blame each other for the initial botch of the occupation, but it is a president's job to impose coherence on his administration. The Fallujah climb-down in April sent a worse message to the Iraqis than even Abu Ghraib did. But successful war leaders make mistakes, even big ones. The political evolution of postwar Iraq has gone better than we could have expected, and we have a good shot at democratic elections in January. Libya's agreement to defang itself has been an important side-benefit of the war.
John Kerry, too, thought Iraq was a threat. He voted for regime change in 1998, and he voted to authorize war in 2002. He says that Bush should not have exercised that authority without more allies. You do not have to be an unqualified fan of this administration's diplomacy to find the critique unpersuasive. Would a few more months at the U.N. have bought us many more allies? Does their absence undermine the case for the war by substantially reducing the threat from the regime, the strategic value of changing the regime, or the likelihood of success? I think the answer to these questions is no.
What would John Kerry do in Iraq now, and in future crises we can only dimly perceive? We know that much of his base, and an increasing number of foreign-policy intellectuals, wants to cut and run in Iraq. We know that he is very attentive to that base: He voted to deny funds for Iraqi reconstruction, just weeks after saying that such a vote would be "reckless" and "irresponsible," because he was afraid of Howard Dean in the primaries. We know that his general instincts are dovish: He voted against the first Gulf War and seems (understandably if misguidedly) to view all foreign-policy questions through the prism of his interpretation of the Vietnam War. And we know that his election would be a stunning American repudiation of the Iraq war and a warning that no American president should risk another foreign intervention—at a time when the difficulties in Iraq have already increased our inhibitions in this regard to a dangerous degree.