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A Time of Heroes

Advance copy from the September 19, 2011 issue.

7:30 PM, Sep 9, 2011 • By PAUL WOLFOWITZ
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The most controversial element of the strategy adopted after 9/11, except perhaps for enhanced interrogations and the terrorist surveillance policy, was the decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That war was costly and there were some costly mistakes. But that doesn’t settle the question of whether the war was a mistake. We paid a high price in Korea for MacArthur’s decision to push up to the Yalu River, but few would argue today that Truman’s controversial decision to come to the defense of South Korea was a mistake. Even World War II, the wisdom and necessity of which even fewer would question, had its costly errors. After the brilliant D-Day landings, we wound up bogged down in the hedgerows of Normandy and suffered 40,000 casualties in six weeks. Failing to recognize that Germany was not yet defeated, we were unprepared for its attack in the Ardennes in December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge that ensued, one of the largest in American history, proved to be a disaster for the Germans. But it also cost more than 80,000 American casualties.

Why did we go to war against Saddam Hussein when it was al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11? Saddam presented the special danger of someone who might provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. He had a record of supporting terrorism and praised the attacks of 9/11. (Even the Taliban condemned the attacks, while complaining that there was no proof al Qaeda was responsible.) Alone among heads of government, Saddam warned that Americans should feel “pain” so that “when they suffer, they will find the right solution and the right path.” And he defied multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, including the ones that required him to dismantle the chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs he had been developing prior to the 1991 Gulf war.

It is true that we didn’t find the stockpiles of WMD that American and other intelligence agencies predicted we would discover in Iraq. But the Iraq Survey Group​—​the very same authority that everyone relies on for the finding that there were no WMD​—​is equally clear that Saddam had the intention and the capability to restart those programs once the sanctions were lifted. According to George Piro, Saddam’s Arabic-speaking FBI interviewer, “He wanted to pursue all of WMD. .  .  . [He wanted] to reconstitute his entire WMD program,” chemical, biological, and even nuclear. “The folks that he needed to reconstitute his program [were] still there.” 

Those who say that it was a mistake to go to Afghanistan and remove the Taliban have an obligation to say what alternative course of action would have produced success. Strategic bombing, the 1998 response on a larger scale, wasn’t going to force the Taliban to abandon al Qaeda, nor would it have enabled us to capture so many key terrorists. And removing the Taliban necessarily confronted us with the challenge of working to create an Afghan government that could stand on its own feet.

Similarly, in Iraq, simply continuing the sanctions regime​—​which was collapsing​—​would have confronted us sooner or later with the problem of Saddam’s WMD ambitions. We might have armed and supported Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, instead of a full-scale invasion. But whichever choice we made, I believe it was right to confront him sooner rather than later.

Ten years after 9/11 we increasingly hear complaints that our response was an overreaction. In fact, by preventing further attacks we may have prevented a different kind of overreaction, the one that happened 70 years ago. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens were put in internment camps, a stain on the record of our democracy. After 9/11, despite some ugly incidents, Americans on the whole behaved well toward their Muslim fellow citizens, and leaders from both political parties went out of their way to emphasize the importance of doing so. 

America is not at war with Islam, either here or abroad. Indeed, in Afghanistan and Iraq our most important partners are Muslims. As long as there are images of Americans killing enemies who happen to be Muslims, those images will be used to feed anti-American propaganda among the world’s Muslims. As long as those images are around, we have to make a sustained effort to explain that we are fighting in defense of people who also happen to be Muslims. And we have done this many times before: in Kuwait in 1991, in northern Iraq in 1991, in Somalia in 1992, in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in 1999, and most recently in Libya this year. We have acted in our national interest and because we believed that the Muslims of those countries deserved our help, not because they were Muslims but because they were human beings. That impressive record needs to be recounted much more often, because it is often forgotten.

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