The media have finally extracted from Hillary Clinton the question they have pressing her Republican rivals to answer for several weeks now: knowing what we now know about Iraq–that it did not have the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) it was thought to have–should we still have invaded Iraq?
The answer journalists wish to hear is “no,” because it is a way of excusing President Barack Obama for the predictable (and predicted) mess that transpired when he withdrew from Iraq.
That is a safe answer, because it satisfies the media (for now, until the inevitable follow-up questions about Iran begin). However, the question itself is a trick. The entire point of the debate over the Iraq War at the time was that we did not know whether or not Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, because it would not tell us, or the United Nations. Though the execution of the war was deeply flawed, there are at least five reasons it was justified, even without WMD.
1. In a post-9/11 world, uncertainty about WMD is not an option. The central preoccupation of policymakers after 9/11 was preventing any further mass terror attacks against the United States. The George W. Bush administration would have been blamed–and rightly so–if Iraq had used WMD or passed WMD to terrorists. It was not a chance the U.S.–or the world–could afford to take. And given the refusal of Saddam Hussein to cooperate with the UN, there was no alternative.
2. An American force in the Middle East would increase pressure on Iran. Removing Saddam Hussain meant removing a threat to the Iranian regime. But putting hundreds of thousands of American troops on Iran’s western border–along with those already in Afghanistan to the east–meant posing a much more potent threat to the regime. That is why Iran temporarily slowed its nuclear program after 2003–and why the Iranian people found the courage to rise in 2009.
3. Freeing the people of Iraq was, and is, a worthy goal. Just a few years ago, with American and allied troops still in Iraq in significant numbers, the sectarian violence and terrorism that had plagued the country for years had begun to slow down. The Iraqi people began to enjoy some semblance of order, of democracy, and of liberty. Instead of staying in Iraq to guide and protect that process–as Obama had promised to do in 2008–Obama abandoned the Iraqi people.
4. International law means nothing unless it is backed up by the will to enforce it. Saddam Hussein defied international law repeatedly: He used WMD against his own people; he invaded his neighbors; he sponsored terrorism. And he did it because he had no fear of facing the consequences. International law, flawed though it is, is a necessary and stabilizing institution–and needs enforcement, even (especially) when global institutions are too corrupt to enforce it.
5. There is potential for freedom in the region–with American leadership. The fall of Saddam Hussein inspired the Lebanese people to rise up against Syrian occupation, and planted the seeds of what later became the Arab Spring. If American leadership had remained strong, that process might have been a positive one. (Certainly Syria would not have become a killing field.) The Middle East may never be fertile soil for democracy, but it can certainly be freer than it is today.
There are, of course, excellent arguments against the war. The best is that it was carried out in crisis management mode, without any real attempt to grapple with the strategic challenge of Iran (or extremism in other nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).
That argument still stands. But it has nothing to do with the question of whether Iraq had WMD.
The only critical thing we know now, which we could not know then, is how careless Bush’s unlikely successor would be.