As the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) capture territory and establish a caliphate stretching across the now-eradicated Syria-Iraq border, hard-won gains secured with American blood and treasure are being lost. We are watching the rise of potentially the gravest threat to our national security in a generation, one that surpasses even the threat we faced on 9/11. Against this backdrop, as we debate what our response should be, it has become fashionable in some quarters to say, “Let’s not relitigate Iraq.” It’s not politically expedient, this line of argument goes, to discuss why we invaded Iraq in the first place, or the lessons we learned. This view is wrong on the history, misguided on the politics, and dangerous as a matter of policy.
The larger war, of which the liberation of Iraq was part, is still ongoing. Winning it requires that we understand the truth about the liberation of Iraq, the challenges America faced in the aftermath of the invasion, how we overcame them with the 2007-08 surge, how we defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq and established a stable, functioning nation allied with America in the heart of the Middle East. We must understand how President Obama squandered it all, creating a vacuum in which ISIS, the richest terrorist organization in history, now thrives.
Those who say the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake are essentially saying we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power. That’s a difficult position to sustain. It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates. It is undisputed that Saddam’s Iraq was a state based on terror, overseeing a coordinated program to support global jihadist terrorist organizations. Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked organization, operated training camps in northern Iraq before the invasion. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, funneled weapons and fighters into these camps, before the invasion, from his location in Baghdad. We also know, again confirmed in documents captured after the war, that Saddam provided funding, training, and other support to numerous terrorist organizations and individuals over decades, including to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who leads al Qaeda today.
It is also undisputed that Saddam Hussein had the technology, equipment, facilities, and scientists in place to construct the world’s worst weapons. We know he intended to reconstitute these programs as soon as the international sanctions regime collapsed. He had an advanced nuclear program in place prior to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In 1998, he kicked the international weapons inspectors out of Iraq. He violated every one of the 17 U.N. Security Council Resolutions passed against him.
Anyone pining for the days of Saddam would do well to read the accounts of his 1988 chemical weapons attack on Halabja, Iraq. Listen to the survivors talk about the babies and children who died slow, painful deaths in bomb shelters where they had sought refuge with their families. The shelters became, as Saddam knew they would, gas chambers. The lesson of Halabja is that Saddam had no compunction, no moral compass, no hesitation to use the world’s worst weapons, including against his own people.
Saddam’s was a reign of terror characterized by torture, rape rooms, the murder of parents in front of their children and children in front of their parents, and the oppression and slaughter of Kurds, Marsh Arabs, and Shiites. George W. Bush captured it well when he wrote that Saddam was a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD and supporting terror at the heart of the Middle East.
Leaving Saddam in power after 9/11, in light of the threat he posed, would have been, as Tony Blair has noted, an act of political cowardice. We are not saying Saddam was responsible for 9/11. What we are saying is that in the aftermath of 9/11, when we saw thousands of our fellow citizens slaughtered by terrorists armed with airline tickets and box cutters, our leaders had an obligation to do everything possible to prevent terrorists from gaining access to even worse weapons. Saddam’s Iraq was the most likely nexus for such an exchange.
Against the weight of historical evidence, some critics claim the Bush administration manufactured or exaggerated the intelligence about Saddam’s weapons programs. The charge doesn’t stand up against the facts. Both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Robb-Silberman Commission issued bipartisan reports concluding there was no politicization of the intelligence or pressure on analysts to change their judgements about Iraq’s WMD.