As the United States once again slides down the slippery slope of Iraq intervention, it might be worth revisiting the reasons given for the 2003 march on Baghdad more than a decade ago. That war was sold as striking a blow against the forces that attacked us on 9/11 and preventing them from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction.
There were always significant problems with this narrative. Even if the hawks had been right about the scope of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs—which they were not—and prescient about his ambitions, how would overthrowing a relatively secular, if tyrannical and loathsome, regime harm al-Qaeda and other jihadists?
As it turned out, al-Qaeda became a much larger force in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown. It is only now, long after the Iraq War, that jihadists are in fact gaining access to government-scale resources, and that we can speak with a straight face about an Islamic state in the country. Iranian influence on Iraq has also since increased.
All of these things came to pass despite U.S. military forces fighting a war in Iraq of longer duration than World War II. Much of that blood and treasure was spent trying to keep Iraqis from killing each other, rather than keeping them from killing Americans.
Occasionally, Iraq hawks (some repentant, others rather less so) complain that counterfactuals in which the United States stayed out of Iraq in 2003 are unfair. Policy decisions need to be judged based on what was known at the time, not what we know now with the benefit of hindsight.
Well. As it happens, the U.S. leaders did contemplate what would happen if we continued on to Baghdad after expelling Saddam’s forces from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. They decided the occupation would be long and costly; that the broad international coalition they had assembled would be fractured; that they would then be on much shakier legal ground; and that the resulting power vacuum might be filled by the kinds of people filling Iraq’s power vacuum right now.
The leaders who made this decision weren’t isolationists or noninterventionists. While some might be described as realists, none of them were worried about America being too ready to serve as the world’s policeman. This administration frequently talked about a “New World Order.”
Among the voices of restraint was none other than Dick Cheney. Then-secretary of defense in the elder George Bush’s administration, Cheney speculated about what kind of government we would have set up to replace Saddam’s.
“Should it be a Sunni government or Shi’a government or a Kurdish government or Ba’athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists?” he asked. “How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew?”
Good questions, all. In August 1992, Cheney asked and answered what might have been the most important one of all.
“And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?” Cheney began, concluding, “And the answer is not very damned many.”
The point of this trip down memory lane isn’t to suggest conditions never change or to engage in some gotcha search for flip-flopping Iraq War supporters. Rather it is to point out that the consequences of the Iraq invasion were foreseeable and that even many of the war’s most dogged supporters were capable of anticipating them.
All of this is relevant today because the usual suspects are pointing to the horrors inflicted by the barbarians of ISIS to promote re-engagement in Iraq—all while seeming more interested in fighting Iran and Syria, two countries in the region that are also fighting ISIS.
Perhaps this is just strategic confusion. But given recent history, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the John McCains and Hillary Clintons look first for pretexts to intervene in the region and ask questions later.
The people in Washington who wanted to stop al-Qaeda by going to war against Ba’athists, or fight Iranian influence while toppling Iran’s main regional counterweight, are at it again. Whatever course we choose next in Iraq and elsewhere, it is probably best that we not let them steer.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?