Over at Pundit Nation, Michael Mathias argues that the "peace activists" were right about Iraq. Before nodding in agreement, I recommend this article by Arthur Herman in Commentary. I read this on my deck the other night over a nice Oregon Pinot Noir and was struck by it's evisceration of the conventional wisdom of the "peace activists." Herman reminds us - but Mathias forgets - that the Iraq Liberation Act making regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States was passed and signed into law in 1998 by President Bill Clinton. In December of 1998, Clinton said the following about Saddam:
Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons. . . . Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there is one big difference: he has used them. Not once, but repeatedly. . . . I have no doubt today that, left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.
The Act did not call for the use of force - it said that it was not speaking to that - but Clinton used force anyway. Shortly after its passage, he asked all UN inspectors to leave Iraq and then launched Operation Desert Fox - a four day campaign of bombing Iraq.
Mathias argues that Saddam didn't support terrorists - save a little money for the families of Palestinen suicide bombers. Of course, the Clinton administration - not just George W. Bush - identified Saddam as a major state sponsor or terrorism. That's not surprising, because he was:
We now know, thanks to captured Iraqi documents, that American intelligence seriously underestimated the extent of Saddam’s ties with terrorist groups of all sorts. Throughout the 1990’s, it emerged, the Iraqi intelligence service had worked with Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Front, and Yasir Arafat’s private army (Force 17), and had given training to members of Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Saddam also collaborated with jihadists fighting the American presence in Somalia, including some who were members of al Qaeda. It may be that al Qaeda had no formal presence in Iraq itself, but the captured documents show that it did not need such a presence. Saddam was willing to work with any terrorists who targeted the United States and its allies, and he reached out to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups (and vice-versa) whenever the occasion warranted.
Mathias implies that UN inspectors thought Saddam had no WMDs, but that's not quite right. All they knew is that he was not complying with the inspection regime so they were unable to draw any conclusions.
Again, from Herman's article:
On November 25, 2002, under the terms of 1441, UN inspectors re-entered Iraq. They came back empty-handed. On December 7, Iraq dumped thousands of pages of documents on UNMOVIC. Even Hans Blix recognized that this mountain of materials, some of them over a decade old, contained nothing to clear up the question of what had happened to Saddam’s stockpiles. All the same, Blix asked for time to sift through the document dump, knowing the task would consume months.
As Bob Woodward notes in Plan of Attack, his account of the run-up to the war, Bush so far had been “a study in patience.” (It is also true that General Franks was not yet ready for offensive operations, and needed time for the buildup of American forces in Kuwait that was the leverage behind the implicit threat of force.) The President held back until Blix’s interim report on January 27, 2003, which even the New York Times labeled “grim.” There was nothing in it to suggest that Iraq had accepted the principle of complying with UN resolutions or intended to take any of the steps that, in Blix’s words, “it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace.”
Every intelligence service thought he still had - or was reconsituting his WMD program. While it is possible, in hind sight, to argue that this bit of evidence should have been discounted or that information should have been given more significance, the fact remains that two administrations - one Democrat and one Republican - and a host of international intelligence agencies thought that he was back in the game.
But, in a sense, whether he had WMDs in 2003 may not even be the right question. They were certainly something that he wanted to have and was willing to use. If he had been dissuaded, it was because of a sanctions regime that was on its last legs.
Mathias argues that the "peace activists" opposition to sanctions was based on the fact that they had failed and they had. Saddam was perfectly willing to let Iraqis starve and the UN was perfectly willing to allow him to do so. He could not, as John Kerry argues, be kept in that box. The "peace activists" would have let him out and we can only speculate on what would have happened. His track record doesn't suggest that it would have been good. What Michael doesn't recognize is that part of the justification for the Iraq war was the failure - abetted by the UN and certain of our allies - of sanctions. Even if Saddam was in check in 2003, it seemed unlikely that he could be kept there.
I don't cite Herman's piece as necessarily establishing that the Iraq war was the right decision. I remember, at the time, being very uncertain about whether it was. But it - along with so many other post war reviews - reminds us that the demonization of Bush reflects, at best, a refusal to face difficult facts and, at worst, a cynical manipulation of a complicated issue.
And, of course, the question of whether the Iraq war was the right decision is not the same question as what to do about Iraq now. Obama seems committed to abandoning Iraq because he would not have gone their in the first place and damn the consequences. That doesn't strike me as change we ought to believe in.