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What If There Had Been Weapons Programs in Iraq?

Today we have something a little out of the ordinary. I’m pleased to have a guest post written by a colleague of mine, Austin Knuppe. He is a member of the Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Fellowship Program, and a graduate student in political science at the Ohio State University. Austin considers the following questions: “What if the US had discovered and eliminated an operational WMD program in Iraq after the fall of Saddam in 2003? Would the benefit of securing WMDs from a “rogue regime” outweigh the human, material, and strategic costs of the past ten years?”


To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, Foreign Policy and the RAND Corporation hosted a discussion among former key players involved in planning, executing, and analyzing the conflict. Professor Peter Feaver, a former Bush NSC staffer, observed that one of the primary
short-comings in the run-up to the war was a failure to conduct serious counterfactual analysis. Echoing this sentiment, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley stated, “It never occurred to me or anyone else I was working with…what if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the WMD and he doesn’t want the Iranians to know?”

By and large, I agree with with Stephen Walt’s assessment that the FP roundtable failed to ask the big, grand-strategic questions necessary in the aftermath of such a strategic blunder. By choosing to focus on operational and tactical minutiae (yes, de-Baathifcation was a huge mistake), most of these analysts failed to address how the Iraq War either achieved or inhibited US interests in the Persian Gulf over the long run.

What if the US had discovered and eliminated an operational WMD program in Iraq after the fall of Saddam in 2003? Would the benefit of securing WMDs from a “rogue regime” outweigh the human, material, and strategic costs of the past ten years? Unfortunately, apart from partially confirming the casus belli, eliminating Saddam’s WMDs would not have made the decision for war any less disastrous.

Before moving forward, a few assumptions are necessary to bound our discussion.

First, I am assuming that the US military, in concert with the Iraq Survey Group, discovered a majority of the WMD elements testified about by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s now infamous presentation to the United Nations on February 5, 2003. This includes, mobile production facilities for biological and chemical agents, a couple hundred Scud ballistic missiles, SRBM warheads and chemically-laced artillery shells, underground stockpiles of chemical and biological agents, and, most importantly, aluminum tubes (used for centrifuges), and weapons-grade fissile material (enriched uranium) obtained from abroad. In other words, I presume that
US and international intelligence estimates were largely correct in identifying Saddam’s treasure trove of illegal weapons.

Second, for the sake of parsimony, I am assuming that US forces secured all known WMD elements and that none of them fell into the hand of insurgents or terrorists (unlikely, I know). In other words, I want to avoid the “loose nuke” scenario that would make such a counterfactual ripe for Kathryn Bigelow’s next film.

Finally, this scenario presupposes that the historical record since the capture of the WMDs played out largely the same as it has the last ten years. This means that the US invested the same amount of blood and treasure and the internal security dynamics in Iraq resemble what they do today. It is reasonable to assume that even if the military did discover and secure WMDs, it would not have planned for Phase 4 (the occupation) of Iraq any more prudently. With regard to regional security dynamics, I will tease out later what WMDs in Iraq would have meant for the US-Iran relationship.

A quick rundown of the human, material, and strategic costs of the Iraq War would also be helpful. Since the beginning of hostilities, over 4,400 US service members have been killed and tens of thousands wounded, which is to say nothing of the over 100,000 Iraqi civilian fatalities and two million displaced refugees. US financial commitments have exceeded $823 billion (not including projected costs for veteran benefits), or roughly 13 times the projected costs by OMB Director Mitch Daniels at the outset of the war. Despite accounting for roughly half of global defense spending and enjoying technological superiority over ally and opponent alike, the mismatch of capabilities and demands on US armed forces in the past decade has stretched the military to the brink.

Under the conditions listed above, would the benefit of securing Saddam’s WMD program outweigh the human, material, and strategic costs of the past ten years? Four lines of argument demonstrate that removing a nuclear-armed Iraq would not have vindicated the losses in blood, treasure, and prestige.

First, a few words on how this scenario would affect the moral calculus of the war. Despite the presence of WMDs, it would be difficult for supporters to claim that the action was preemptive as opposed to preventive. To review, preemption entails an anticipatory response to an existential threat before it materializes, whereas preventive war is initiated to prevent another party from initiating an inevitable, but not imminent, attack. The distinguishing variable are imminence (the time frame) and threat level (a function of malevolent intentions and offensive capabilities). Assuming that Saddam had deliverable WMDs and hostile intentions, such capabilities did not present an existential threat to the security of the United States. In the absence of an existential threat, the logic outlined in President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy (p. 15), as well as the Iraq War, would still be considered prevention — a violation of just war precepts and international law.

Second, securing Iraqi WMDs would have further distorted the relationship between the US intelligence community and public policymakers. As Paul Pillar observes, the intelligence community functions best when it provides evidence to inform national security policy as opposed to taking an active role in shaping decision-making. A correct prediction regarding WMDs in Iraq would have only provided perverse incentives for leaders to cherry-pick intelligence in future conflicts. It would also provide no guarantee that intelligence analysts would correct predict the next crisis. As any sound investment advisor will readily tell you: past performance is no guarantee of future results. In short, the hubris of “getting Iraq right” could have had dire consequences for the Obama administration’s position toward Syria.

Third, securing WMDs in Iraq would not have altered the internal security dynamics during Phase 4, or the post-Saddam military occupation. De-Baathification would still have created thousands of new insurgents, the “surge” would still not have provide lasting security gains, and corrupt Iraqi officials and civilian contractors would still have siphoned off millions of US development dollars to line their own pockets. Furthermore, securing WMDs would not have guaranteed that a future Iraqi regime (democratic or not) would not pursue such capabilities in the future. Institutional memory—in the form of physical blueprints as well as local scientists and engineers—would ensure that Iraq could proliferate within a matter of months if its security was threatened.

Finally, it is tempting to believe that a world in which the US eliminating Iraqi WMDs would also have afforded Bush and company greater leverage vis-a-vis Iran. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. A correct call on WMDs may have brought the Iranians to the bargaining table more quickly, but as the historical record already demonstrates, the Iranians were quite willing to coordinate with US counter-terrorism efforts and EU-3 nuclear talks in fall of 2004. Indeed US success on the nuclear front would only have reinforced the mistaken notion that regime change could be done on the cheap. Instead of coercing Tehran to the negotiating table, such hubris would have reinforced the security dilemma by encouraging Iran’s leaders to pursue whatever capabilities possible to protect their survival. The only interesting development would be a renewed discussion about whether nuclear weapons truly are life insurance against regime change. Even this debate, however, does not change the basic logic of deterrence theory: nuclear weapons have a greater defensive than offensive utility.

Counterfactual reasoning is an imperfect endeavor, but it does force strategists to consider how inter-state war may either advance or inhibit a state’s national interest. In the case of Iraq, the historical record—as well as counterfactual analysis—is clear: regardless of the presence of WMDs, deterrence and containment toward Saddam Hussein would have been the more prudent policy. One can only hope that policymakers take this lesson to heart as they continue to face the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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