I Supported the Invasion of Iraq

But a just cause doesn’t make for a just war.

A U.S. Marine, photographed from behind, raises his hands to grip the frame of a portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging above a blackboard.
A U.S. Marine pulls down a picture of Saddam Hussein at a school on April 16, 2003, in Al-Kut, Iraq. (Chris Hondros / Getty)

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Twenty years after the United States led a coalition to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the conventional wisdom is now that the postwar fiasco proved that the war was a mistake from its inception. The war, as it was executed, was indeed a disaster, but there was ample cause for launching it.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Just War

I supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I have changed my mind about some things but not everything, and I hope you’ll bear with me in a somewhat longer edition of the Daily today for a personal exploration of the issue.

In retrospect, almost no American war except the great crusade against the Axis seems to have been necessary, especially for the people who have had to go and fight such conflicts. How could we have asked our military men and women to endure death and mutilation and horror in 1991 so that a bunch of rich Kuwaitis could return to their mansions, or in 2003 so that we could finally settle scores with a regional dictator? Yesterday, The Bulwark ran a searing, must-read reminiscence of the Iraq War written by a U.S. veteran that reminds us how high-flown ideas such as “national interest” or “international order” play little role on the actual battlefield.

And yet, there are just wars: conflicts that require the use of armed force on behalf of an ally or for the greater good of the international community. I was an advocate for deposing Saddam by the mid-1990s on such grounds. Here is what I wrote in the journal Ethics & International Affairs on the eve of the invasion in March 2003:

The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor led by a dictator willing to run imprudent risks, including an attack on the civilians of a noncombatant nation during the Persian Gulf War; a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians; a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the terms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty, to say nothing of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions before and since the Persian Gulf War; a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.

Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime (and wars have started over less), but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war.

Today, there is not a word of this I would take back as an indictment of Saddam Hussein or as justification for the use of force. But although I believed that the war could be justified on these multiple grounds, the George W. Bush administration chose a morally far weaker argument for a preventive war, ostensibly to counter a gathering threat of weapons of mass destruction. (Preemptive war, by the way, is a war to avert an imminent attack, and generally permissible in international law and custom. Preventive war is going to war on your own timetable to snuff out a possible future threat, a practice long rejected by the international community as immoral and illegal. The Israeli move at the opening of the Six-Day War, in 1967, was preemptive; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, was preventive.)

Of course, the Iraqi dictator was doing his damndest to convince the world that he had weapons of mass destruction, because he was terrified of admitting to his worst foe, Iran, that he no longer had them. (He sure convinced me.) But this was no evidence of an imminent threat requiring instant action, and the WMD charge was the shakiest of limbs in a tree full of much stronger branches.

Bush used the WMD rationale as just one in a kitchen sink of issues, likely because his advisers thought it was the case that would most resonate with the public after the September 11 terror attacks. For years, most Western governments saw terrorism, rogue states, and WMD as three separate problems, to be handled by different means. After 9/11, these three issues threaded together into one giant problem—a rogue state supporting terrorists who seek to do mass damage—and the tolerance for risk that protected the Iraqi tyrant for so many years evaporated.

In 2003, I was far too confident in the ability of my own government to run a war of regime change, which managed to turn a quick operational victory into one of the greatest geopolitical disasters in American history. Knowing what I now know, I would not have advocated for setting the wheels of war in motion. And although Bush bears the ultimate responsibility for this war, I could not have imagined how much Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s obsession with “transformation,” the idea that the U.S. military could do more with fewer troops and lighter forces, would undermine our ability to conduct a war against Iraq. As Eliot Cohen later said, “The thing I know now that I did not know then is just how incredibly incompetent we would be, which is the most sobering part of all this.”

My own unease about the war began when America’s de facto military governor, Paul Bremer, disbanded the Iraqi military and embarked on “de-Baathification,” taking as his historical analogy the “denazification” of Germany after World War II. This was bad history and bad policy, and it created a massive unemployment problem among people skilled in violence while punishing civilians whose only real association with Baathism was the party card required for them to get a good job.

And yet, for a few years more, I stayed the course. I believed that Iraqis, like anyone else, wanted to be free. They might not be Jeffersonian democrats, but they hated Saddam, and now they had a chance at something better. Like many of our leaders, I was still amazed at the collapse of the Soviet Union, appalled at Western inaction in places like Rwanda, and convinced (as I still am) that U.S. foreign policy should be premised on a kind of Spider-Man doctrine: With great power comes great responsibility.

Unfortunately, in my case, this turned into supporting what the late Charles Krauthammer in 1999 called “a blanket anti-son of a bitch policy,” which he described as “soothing, satisfying and empty. It is not a policy at all but righteous self-delusion.” Krauthammer was right, and people like me were too willing to argue for taking out bad guys merely because they were bad guys. But that word blanket was doing a lot of lifting in Krauthammer’s formulation; perhaps we cannot go after all of them, but some sons of bitches should be high on the list. For me, Saddam was one of them.

The question now was whether even Saddam Hussein was worth the cost. Twenty years ago, I would have said yes. Today, I would say no—but I must add the caveat that no one knew then, nor can anyone know now, how much more dangerous a world we might have faced with Saddam and his psychopathic sons still in power. (Is the world better off because we left Bashar al-Assad in charge and allowed him to turn Syria into an abattoir?) Yes, some rulers are too dangerous to remove; Vladimir Putin, hiding in the Kremlin behind a wall of nuclear weapons, comes to mind. Some, however, are too dangerous to allow to remain in command, and in 2003, I included Saddam in that group.

In 2007, Vanity Fair interviewed a group of the war’s most well-known supporters. Even the ur-hawk Richard Perle (nicknamed in Washington the “Prince of Darkness” when he worked for Ronald Reagan) admitted that, if he had it to do over again, he might have argued for some path other than war. But the comment that sticks with me to this day, and the one that best represents my thinking, came from Ambassador Kenneth Adelman. In 2002, Adelman famously declared that the war would be “a cakewalk,” but five years later, he said:

The policy can be absolutely right, and noble, beneficial, but if you can’t execute it, it’s useless, just useless. I guess that’s what I would have said: that Bush’s arguments are absolutely right, but you know what? You just have to put them in the drawer marked CAN’T DO. And that’s very different from LET’S GO.

Twenty years later, that’s where I remain. The cause was just, but there are times when doing what’s right and just is not possible. For almost 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Allied victory over Iraq, the United States had the chance to deepen the importance of international institutions. We squandered that opportunity because of poor leadership, Pentagon fads (the “Office of Force Transformation” was disbanded in 2006, shortly before Bush finally removed Rumsfeld), and amateurish historical analogies.

Still, there’s too much revisionist history about the Iraq War. You’ll see arguments that experts supported it. (Most academics and many civilians in D.C. did not.) You’ll hear that it was a right-wing crusade backed only by a Republican minority. (Also wrong.) Had the war been executed differently, we might be having a different conversation today.

The fact remains that the United States is a great power protecting an international system it helped to create, and there will be times when military action is necessary. Fortunately, most Americans still seem to grasp this important reality.

Would I argue for another such operation today? If the question means “another massive preventive war far from home,” no. I have consistently opposed war with Iran and any direct U.S. involvement in Ukraine. I wrote a book in 2008 warning that we should strengthen the United Nations and other institutions to stop the growing acceptance around the world of preventive war as a normal tool of statecraft.

I also, however, supported the NATO operation in Libya, and I have called for using American airpower to blunt Assad’s mass murders in Syria. Iraq was a terrible mistake, but it would be another mistake to draw the single-minded conclusion (much as we did after Vietnam) that everything everywhere will forever be another Iraq. The world is too dangerous, and American leadership too necessary, for us to fall into such a facile and paralyzing trap.


Today’s News
  1. French President Emmanuel Macron’s government survived a no-confidence motion by nine votes, the result of widespread backlash to a bill that would raise the retirement age in France from 62 to 64.
  2. President Joe Biden issued the first veto of his presidency, on a resolution to overturn a retirement-investment rule allowing managers of retirement funds to consider environmental and social factors when choosing investments.
  3. Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited the Kremlin, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted each other as “dear friend.” Washington denounced the visit.


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Evening Read
Dog illustration
Illustration by Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

Please Get Me Out of Dead-Dog TikTok

By Caroline Mimbs Nyce

A brown dog, muzzle gone gray—surely from a life well lived—tries to climb three steps but falters. Her legs give out, and she twists and falls. A Rottweiler limps around a kitchen. A golden retriever pants in a vet’s office, then he’s placed on a table, wrapped in medical tubes. “Bye, buddy,” a voice says off camera. Nearby, a hand picks up a syringe.

This is Dead-Dog TikTok. It is an algorithmic loop of pet death: of sick and senior dogs living their last day on Earth, of final hours spent clinging to one another in the veterinarian’s office, of the brutal grief that follows in the aftermath. One related trend invites owners to share the moment they knew it was time—time unspecified, but clear: Share the moment you decided to euthanize your dog.

Read the full article.

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Culture Break
a globe with book-shaped pins in it
Matt Chase / The Atlantic; source: Getty

Read. These eight books will take you somewhere new.

Watch. Abbott Elementary, on ABC (and available to stream on Hulu).

Our writer Jerusalem Demsas endorsed the show this weekend: “I’m someone who can usually only watch TV while doing at least one or two other things at the same time, and this show grabs my full attention.”

Play our daily crossword.


No recommendations today, other than to thank our veterans for shouldering the burden of a war that we asked them to fight.

— Tom