The Iraq War Question: A Suggestion to Republican Candidates

The foreign policy position of several Republican candidates took a dramatic turn after Jeb Bush, by common perception, bungled a question on the Iraq War.  Knowing what he knows now (i.e., that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) would Governor Bush have launched an invasion in 2003?  Bush answered in the affirmative, thereafter discovering that he had misunderstood the question and needed to amend his response.  Immediately after, such other candidates as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz deemed it prudent to say no – knowing what they also know now, they would not have attacked Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein.

Is it really wise to concede effectively that the Democrats have been right since they switched from supporting the 2002 Use of Military Force Authorization to “Bush lied, kids died”?  Do Republican candidates not thereby set up Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy argument?  The Republicans now admit that they led us into an awful blunder, the full consequences of which we are only just seeing, and yet they want another chance to conduct the nation’s foreign policy!  Are you, the American people, going to give it to them?

Before saying exactly what the Democrats want to hear, Republicans might consider whether the decision itself to make war was the actual blunder.

The Republican confession of error in invading Iraq is predicated upon the unraveling of the justification for war most emphasized in 2002-2003: the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein and his active programs to develop them.  But was the blunder not to rely upon such a supposed factual assertion, which could be verified empirically only after the invasion occurred?  What about the following justification for the invasion?

In 1991, there was a war, authorized by both the Congress and the United Nations.  It was determined in a few days by the complete battlefield victory of the United States and its allies, and it resulted in a truce, or “ceasefire agreement,” according to which the tyrant, murderer, and aggressor was allowed to remain in power upon certain conditions.  The conditions were understood by both sides to be embodied in United Nations Resolution 687 (1991).  The Resolution indeed mentioned prominently the matter of WMD, requiring the Iraqis to allow for the destruction and removal of any they had (along with ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometers), to agree not to make any in the future, and to permit “urgent on-site inspection.”  It also required Iraq to cooperate with the International Red Cross in the location, protection, and repatriation of Kuwaiti nationals, and to refrain from acts of terrorism and the harboring of terrorist groups.  Furthermore, the inherent mutual promise between parties concluding a ceasefire or truce is that hostilities stop.  Hence, the opening clauses of Resolution 687 reaffirm “the need to be assured of Iraq’s peaceful intentions in the light of its unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.”

It is surely beyond dispute that in the dozen years after the end of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq violated virtually every provision of Resolution 687.  It had agreed not merely to be without WMD, but to allow a full program of monitoring and inspection.  Its failure to comply with this requirement was certified by the U.N.’s own weapons inspector, Hans Blix, on March 7, 2003 – the very eve of the Iraq War.  So far from ceasing hostilities, Saddam Hussein had his forces regularly shoot at patrolling Coalition aircraft and contrived at the assassination of President George H.W. Bush when he visited Kuwait on the second anniversary of the war.  Hussein did not cooperate with the Red Cross in repatriating anyone and continued slaughtering his own people with merry abandon as the ink dried on Resolution 687.  And while no one ever said that Iraq participated in the 9/11 attack, it did harbor terrorists, including one of the participants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Most of this was included in the October 16, 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq, for which Senator Hillary Clinton voted.

Now, whether or not a country adheres to its promises, commitments, and ultimatums is a matter of some significance.  People who give undertakings and then forsake them or who make idle threats need not expect to be respected, trusted, or feared by their enemies.  It is scarcely different with nations.  Hence Churchill, in his general thoughts on the Munich Agreement, cites “one helpful guide” in foreign policy – “namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations.”  He adds, “This guide is called honour.”  In the case of Munich, the treaty obligation was to the threatened country Czechoslovakia.  In the case of Iraq, there was a ceasefire agreement with terms embodied in a U.N. resolution, to which the United States and all the belligerent states were parties.  The terms of the ceasefire having been violated, brazenly, it was the right and duty of the victorious Coalition led by the United States to resume hostilities.  And the United States, having granted Saddam Hussein quarter in 1991 on specific conditions, had to react to the breaking of those conditions.  Saddam Hussein played the United States false and so ended up deposed and dead; that example was worth showing the world.  It was not lost on Mr. Gaddafi in Libya.

The conduct of the war in Iraq after Hussein was gone is something else that a Republican candidate might have done differently, knowing what he knows now.  This is no place for retrospective amateur generalship, but in the struggle against al-Qaeda that followed Hussein’s downfall, there seem to have been distractions from the business of winning the war: nation-building, an election even as the conflict persisted, the fashioning of infrastructure and schools, rules of engagement that lessened the troops’ firepower, and courts martial for honest mistakes made in dire combat conditions.  Despite these dubious policies, after the famous “surge,” a qualified victory seemed to have been attained.  The present administration’s decision to throw it away ought to be one that every Republican candidate says he would not make, knowing what he knows now and what he knew when Obama came into office.

The proper Republican answer to the question “Would you have gone into Iraq knowing what you know now?” is yes.  Yes, because the enemy breached the terms on which hostilities were ended in the previous war, and by which his regime was allowed to continue.  Yes, because the word of the United States must mean something.  Yes, because the world, “friend and foe alike,” must know that our word means something, and because that in itself is an absolute good and necessity.