Why We Went to War
From the October 20, 2003 issue: The case for the war in Iraq, with testimony from Bill Clinton.
At the end of 1997, this limitation on the inspectors' freedom of movement precipitated an international crisis. The Clinton administration demanded that the inspectors be given full access to the "palaces." The Iraqis refused. Instead, Saddam demanded the removal of all Americans from the U.N. inspection team and an end to all U-2 flights over Iraq, and even threatened to shoot the planes down. In case there was any doubt that his aim was to conceal weapons programs that the inspectors were getting close to discovering, Iraq at this time also began moving equipment that could be used to manufacture weapons out of the range of video cameras that had been installed by the U.N. inspection team.
The New York Times reported at the time that the U.N. weapons inspectors (not American intelligence) believed that Iraq possessed "the elements of a deadly germ warfare arsenal and perhaps poison gases, as well as the rudiments of a missile system" that could launch the warheads. But because of Saddam's action at the end of 1997, the Times reported, the U.N. inspection team could "no longer verify that Iraq is not making weapons of mass destruction" and specifically could not monitor "equipment that could grow seed stocks of biological agents in a matter of hours." Saddam's precipitating of this crisis was a bold move, aimed at splitting the U.N. Security Council and isolating the Clinton administration. And it worked. The Clinton administration tried but failed to get French and Russian support at the Security Council either for military action or for a tightening of sanctions to force Saddam to cease these activities and comply with his commitment to disarm. The French and Russian position by 1997 was that the "books" should be closed on Iraq's WMD programs, sanctions should be lifted, and relations with Saddam should be normalized. That remained the French position for the next five years.
It was in response to this crisis that we at this magazine began calling for Saddam Hussein's ouster by means of a ground invasion. And in a letter sent to President Clinton on January 26, 1998, we and a number of other former government officials urged military action against Saddam on the grounds that the situation had become untenable and perilous. As a result of recent events, we wrote, the United States could
no longer depend on our partners in the Gulf War coalition to continue to uphold the sanctions or to punish Saddam when he blocks or evades U.N. inspections. Our ability to ensure that Saddam Hussein is not producing weapons of mass destruction, therefore, has substantially diminished. Even if full inspections were eventually to resume, which now seems highly unlikely, experience has shown that it is difficult if not impossible to monitor Iraq's chemical and biological weapons production. The lengthy period during which the inspectors will have been unable to enter many Iraqi facilities has made it even less likely that they will be able to uncover all of Saddam's secrets. As a result, in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons. Such uncertainty will, by itself, have a seriously destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East.
IN EARLY 1998, the Clinton administration, following this same logic, prepared for war against Iraq. On February 17, President Clinton spoke on the steps of the Pentagon to explain to the American people why war was necessary. The speech is worth excerpting at length, because it was then and remains today the fundamental case for the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.
President Clinton declared that the great threat confronting the United States and its allies was a lethal and "unholy axis" of international terrorists and outlaw states. "They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them." There was, Clinton declared, "no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein's Iraq. His regime threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region and the security of all the rest of us." Before the Gulf War of 1991, Clinton noted, "Saddam had built up a terrible arsenal, and he had used it. Not once, but many times in a decade-long war with Iran, he used chemical weapons against combatants, against civilians, against a foreign adversary and even against his own people." At the end of the Gulf War, Saddam had promised to reveal all his programs and disarm within 15 days. But instead, he had spent "the better part of the past decade trying to cheat on this solemn commitment." As Clinton explained: