Why Did We Invade Iraq?

Why Did We Invade Iraq?

By Victor Davis Hanson - March 27, 2013

n the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the back-and-forth recriminations continue, but in all the “not me” defenses, we have forgotten, over the ensuing decade, the climate of 2003 and why we invaded in the first place. The war was predicated on six suppositions.

1. 9/11 and the 1991 Gulf War. The Bush administration made the argument that in the post-9/11 climate there should be a belated reckoning with Saddam Hussein. He had continued to sponsor terrorism, had over the years invaded or attacked four of his neighbors, and had killed tens of thousands of his own people. He was surely more a threat to the region and to his own people than either Bashar Assad or Moammar Qaddafi was eight years later.

In this context, the end of the 1991 Gulf War loomed large: Its denouement had led not to the removal of a defeated Saddam, but to mass slaughter of Kurds and Shiites. Twelve years of no-fly zones had seen periods of conflict, and the enforcement of those zones no longer enjoyed much, if any, international support — suggesting that Saddam would soon be able to reclaim his regional stature. Many of the architects or key players in the 1991 war were once again in power in Washington, and many of them had in the ensuing decade become remorseful about the ending of the prior conflict. The sense of the need to correct a mistake became all the more potent after 9/11. Most Americans have now forgotten that by 2003, most of the books published on the 1991 war were critical, faulting the unnecessary overkill deployment; the inclusion of too many allies, which hampered U.S. choices; the shakedown of allies to help defray the cost; the realist and inhumane ending to the conflict; the ongoing persecution of Shiites, Marsh Arabs, and Kurds; and the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power.

Since there was no direct connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam, take away the security apprehensions following 9/11, and George Bush probably would not have taken the risk of invading Iraq. By the same token, had the 1991 Gulf War ended differently, or had the U.N. and the NATO allies continued to participate fully in the no-fly zones and the containment of Iraq, there likewise would not have been a 2003 invasion. The Iraq War was predicated, rightly or wrongly, on the notion that the past war with Saddam had failed and containment would fail, and that after 9/11 it was the proper time to end a sponsor of global terrorism that should have been ended in 1991 — a decision that, incidentally, would save Kurdistan and allow it to turn into one of the most successful and pro-American regions in the Middle East.

2. AfghanistanA second reason was the rapid victory in the war in Afghanistan immediately following 9/11. Scholars and pundits had warned of disaster on the eve of the October 2001 invasion. Even if it was successful in destroying the rule of the Taliban, any chance of postwar stability was declared impossible, given the “graveyard of empires” reputation of that part of the world. But the unforeseen eight-week war that with ease removed the Taliban, and the nonviolent manner in which the pro-Western Hamid Karzai later assumed power, misled the administration and the country into thinking Iraq would be a far less challenging prospect — especially given Iraq’s humiliating defeat in 1991, which had contrasted sharply with the Soviet failure in Afghanistan.

After all, in contrast to Afghanistan, Iraq had accessible ports, good weather, flat terrain, a far more literate populace, and oil — facts that in the ensuing decade, ironically, would help to explain why David Petraeus finally achieved success there in a manner not true of his later efforts in Afghanistan.

Since the U.S. had seemingly succeeded in two months where the Soviets had abjectly failed in a decade, and given that we already had once trounced Saddam, it seemed likely that Iraq would follow the success of Afghanistan. History is replete with examples of such misreadings of the past: The French in 1940 believed that they could hold off the Germans as they had for four years in the First World War; the Germans believed the Russians would be as weak at home in 1941 as they had seemed sluggish abroad in Poland and Finland in 1939–40. Had Afghanistan proved as difficult at the very beginning of the war as it did at the end, the U.S. probably would not have invaded Iraq.

3. Everyone on board. A third reason was the overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, in the media, and among the public — for reasons well beyond WMD. In October 2002, both houses of Congress passed 23 writs justifying the removal of Saddam, an update of Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Senators Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid were among those who not only enthusiastically called for Saddam’s removal, but also warned of intelligence estimates of Saddam’s WMD arsenals. Pundits on both sides, from Thomas Friedman to George Will, likewise supported the invasion, which on the eve of the war enjoyed over 70 percent approval from the American people. Bush, in that regard, had achieved what Clinton had not on the eve of the Serbian War — he had obtained a joint resolution of support from Congress before attacking, and had taken nearly a year in concerted (though failed) attempts to win U.N. approval for Saddam’s removal. Had Bush not gone to Congress, had he made no attempt to go to the U.N., had he had no public support, or had he been opposed by the liberal press, he probably would not have invaded Iraq.

4. WMDA fourth reason was the specter of WMD. While the Bush administration might easily have cited the persuasive writs of the bipartisan resolutions — genocide against the Kurds, Shiites, and Marsh Arabs; bounties for suicide bombers; sanctuary for terrorists; attempts to kill a former U.S. president; violations of U.N. sanctions and resolutions; etc. — it instead fixated on supposedly unimpeachable intelligence about WMD, a “slam dunk,” according to CIA director George Tenet, a judgment with which most Middle Eastern governments and European intelligence agencies agreed. This concentration on WMD would prove a critical political mistake. Note in passing that the eventual public furor over missing WMD stockpiles (although there issolid evidence that Saddam was perilously close to WMD deployment) did not fully develop with the initial knowledge of that intelligence failure, but only with the mounting violence after a seemingly brilliant victory over Saddam.

The missing vast stockpiles of WMD then became the source of the convenient slogan “Bush lied, thousands died.” Yet had the reconstruction gone well, we would surely not have heard something like “Bush lied — and so there was no need, after all, to depose Saddam and foster consensual government in Iraq.”

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Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing

This article originally appeared in the National Review (Online). It is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution

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