Better than two years after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq, defeated its government, and set up a new one, there is widespread disagreement within the US about whether it should have been done and almost universal opposition if not condemnation overseas. Unfortunately, much of the argument between those who supported and those who opposed has been couched in emotional terms, informed by partisan politics, or based on pre-existing prejudices. What is lacking is an unbiased look at the situation as it was in 2002 and at the real alternatives available then.
In 2002 there was a de facto state of war between Iraq on one side and the US, with several other supporting states, on the other. Since 1991, the end of the Gulf War when the US-led coalition had expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, US-sponsored UN economic sanctions and inspections had reduced the populace to poverty. US aircraft flew over the country daily, enforcing no-fly zones and bombing air defense and other sites. Irritating to many Arabs, significant US military forces were deployed in the region, costing billions per year as well as some US and many Iraqi lives. It was the stated policy of the US government (Congress and President Clinton, 1998) to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Much to Turkey's chagrin as well as Iraq's, the Kurds had been allowed to set up a semi-independent state on Iraqi territory under US protection. During this twelve year period the Iraqi regime, led by Saddam Hussein, had killed thousands of dissident citizens, hid WMD programs (although all were eventually found and dismantled, a fact not known in 2002), shot at aircraft, misdirected food and medical shipments while the people were starving, sponsored terrorists (in particular against Israeli civilians), and bypassed sanctions through bribery while expressing continued defiance. After a devastating attack against the US conducted by Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan and the successful US riposte that overthrew that regime, the Bush administration faced the need to make strategic decisions in a new environment. In particular, what, if anything, should be done about Iraq?
The first possible course of action was, of course, to give up on doing anything about Iraq. This would have involved acquiescing in lifting the UN sanctions, canceling the no-fly zones, and adopting a hands-off approach to Iraqi internal affairs. This also could have entailed withdrawal of some military assets from the region. There would have been significant cost savings and less direct threat to American lives due to the decrease in military effort. The irritating US military presence (especially in Saudi Arabia) would have been mitigated or removed. Another source of irritation, the suffering of many ordinary Iraqis due to the effects of sanctions (and Hussein's misappropriation of oil-for-food money), would have been mitigated as well. On the other hand, Hussein would remain in power, supporting terrorism particularly against Israel, and with freedom to resume his WMD programs. Most Iraqis would still be oppressed and the Kurds abandoned to Hussein's mercies. There would be a serious negative effect on US prestige and influence worldwide as the administration would be perceived as retreating from previous commitments.
Alternately, the administration could have executed a second course of action, maintaining the status quo: Keep the sanctions, keep the no-fly zones, protect the Kurds, continue covert operations, and hope something turns up. This would have required no decisions or sales jobs by the administration, and presumably would have kept Hussein "in his box." Unfortunately, there was every indication that the situation was not stable. France, Russia, and China were all known to be in favor of lifting the sanctions and many countries were openly flouting them. Continuing UN support for sanctions and the no-fly zones was problematic and it seemed that an eventual retreat was probable. Terrorist attacks against Americans based in the area had occurred and threats against those bases were increasing. Hussein was playing a very deceptive game with his WMD programs and gaining prestige by standing up to the "big bully."
Finally, the third possible course of action was to end the game with an overt invasion. Advantages of this course would be removing the WMD threat (shown in hindsight not to be significant in the short term); removing overt state sponsorship for terrorism; lessening the long-term need for military forces in the region; and removing a brutal dictator who started several wars and who had enslaved, tortured, and killed many of his countrymen. The possibility of establishing a democratic Arab government, a hitherto remote dream, existed as well. However, although overt defeat was not likely, there were several distinct negative possibilities recognized even at the time: a costly, bloody, and protracted conflict; stirring up "world opinion" against the US; fostering more Islamic terrorism; and an uncertain aftermath. The blood and treasure required and the focus needed to execute this course of action would distract the administration from many other goals of importance.
The dilemma is clear. Although it was possible to consider many shades and nuances of the three courses of action and their potential advantages and disadvantages, in broad outline there were only these three. The negative consequences of any decision (or lack of decision—status quo) outweighed the positive. All the choices were bad, so the administration opted for the high-risk, high potential gain option, invasion.
Unfortunately, a straightforward analysis such as this did not provide a publicly acceptable justification for invasion. The administration had to hang their rationale on dark hints of Iraqi collaboration with Al Qaida and the threat posed by WMD. After all, everyone (including the French, and more to the point, the Democrats in Congress) agreed Hussein still had WMD and was hiding them from the UN for a no-doubt nefarious purpose. Given the aftermath of 9/11, Hussein's relationship with at least some terrorists, and the "slam dunk" that he had usable WMD, it was possible to build a public case for invasion. So, the administration trumpeted WMD, tried the UN and failed, tried Congress and succeeded, and went to war. The potential gains of this course of action may yet come to pass, but the negative possibilities definitely did. -- John Scales