IRAQ: Justifying the War

February 02, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Iraq

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Was the war in Iraq justified?

There is broad agreement that removing Saddam Hussein from power neutralized a ruthless tyrant. But the debate over why the United States went to war has grown increasingly bitter. The Bush administration continues vigorously to defend its case for removing Saddam. Its critics say the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or links between Saddam and al Qaeda--two key elements in the pro-war argument--is evidence that the administration may have misled Americans about the threat Iraq posed. And ongoing attacks in Iraq, as well as the rapidly mounting cost of the occupation--well over $100 billion so far--have caused many who initially backed the war to reconsider.

What is the level of public support for the president’s Iraq policy?

While still substantial, increasingly Americans are starting to question the war and its aftermath. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in September showed that 58 percent of those surveyed approved of the way President Bush was handling Iraq, down from 71 percent in March. A poll in the September 13, 2003, Newsweek found that 51 percent of Americans opposed the president’s request for $87 billion in additional funding for U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan; 46 percent said the United States should reduce the number of troops in Iraq; and 48 percent said the administration’s postwar plan wasn’t carefully thought out. The government’s rationale for war and its administration of Iraq have become political issues. Bush’s spending request is under tough scrutiny on Capitol Hill, and many of the Democratic presidential candidates regularly criticize Bush’s handling of Iraq.

What were the main arguments for going to war?

The Bush administration’s rationale was built around six main themes: Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); the threat Saddam posed to the Middle East; Iraq’s links to al Qaeda; Saddam’s harsh treatment of the Iraqi people; Iraq’s lack of democracy; and the example a free and democratic Iraq would set for authoritarian regimes in the region.

What did administration officials say about Saddam’s arsenal of WMD?

In the run-up to the war, various officials and U.S. allies repeatedly asserted that Iraq had WMD that represented a threat to the United States and other targets.

  • President Bush, in a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 7, 2002, said, "[Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.... Members of Congress of both political parties, and members of the United Nations Security Council, agree that Saddam Hussein is a threat to peace and must disarm. We agree that the Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons."
  • Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, on September 24, 2002, presented a United Kingdom Intelligence Services dossier that claimed Iraq had biological and chemical weapons, some of which could be deployed immediately. "[Saddam] has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population," Blair said. Disputes about the veracity of this claim were at the heart of an official inquiry into the apparent suicide of scientist David Kelly after he was publicly identified as an anonymous source who expressed doubts about the claim in a BBC report. The Blair government was cleared of wrongdoing in the probe, but Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications, resigned.
  • Vice President Dick Cheney, in an August 26, 2002, speech and to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations on February 5, 2003, that U.S. intelligence knew of at least seven and perhaps 18 mobile biological research laboratories mounted on trucks that were being driven around Iraq in order to conceal them from inspectors.
  • Powell also told the United Nations that Saddam "is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries." These tubes are controlled by the Nuclear Suppliers Group specifically because they can be used as centrifuges for enriching uranium."
  • CIA director George Tenet told Congress on February 11, 2003, that Saddam had both biological and chemical weapons, and that unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] could potentially deliver such weapons against other countries, including the United States.

What has been discovered about Iraq’s WMD program?

U.N. inspectors in Iraq failed to find stockpiles of WMD before the war; they did discover and ordered the destruction of several missiles whose range exceeded U.N. limits. David Kay, a former chief U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, was appointed head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG) in June 2003 and charged with investigating allegations of WMD in Iraq. His 1,400-member group is the only weapons search team currently working in Iraq.

Kay before Congress on October 2, 2003, about the group’s initial findings. While cautioning that his investigation is still under way, he said ISG had not yet found stocks of weapons, but he didn’t rule out the possibility that they still might exist.

Kay also said:

  • On chemical weapons (CW): "Multiple sources" have told ISG that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled CW program after 1991. Information found to date suggests that Iraq’s large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW munitions was reduced--if not entirely destroyed--during Operation Desert Storm [the 1991 Gulf War] and Desert Fox [a four-day bomb and cruise missile assault on Iraq in December 1998], 13 years of U.N. sanctions and U.N. inspections."We have not yet found evidence to confirm prewar reporting that Iraqi military units were prepared to use CW against coalition forces."
  • On nuclear weapons: "Despite evidence of Saddam’s continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material."
  • On mobile biological agent laboratories: "We have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile [biological weapons] production effort."
  • On aluminum tubes: "the evidence does not tie any activity directly to centrifuge research or development."
  • On UAVs: "Given Iraq’s interest before the Gulf War in attempting to convert a MIG-21 [combat jet] into an unmanned aerial vehicle to carry spray tanks capable of dispensing chemical or biological agents, attention is being paid to whether any of the newer generation of UAVs were intended to have a similar purpose. This remains an open question."

Other experts have disputed the claim that Iraq had WMD, both before the war started and since Bush declared the end of major combat operations May 1, 2003. Kenneth Katzman, senior expert on Iraq affairs for the Congressional Research Service, says of the allegation that Saddam had produced weapons that were ready to use: "I have seen no evidence presented on that at all."

Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations on October 6, 2003, that the Kay report "raises a significant question about whether these programs, while they clearly existed at some level, actually posed the urgent or imminent threat that the administration said they posed before the war."

What was the administration’s case linking Iraq to al Qaeda?

In a speech on January 30, 2003, Cheney said that Saddam’s regime "aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. [Saddam] could decide secretly to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against us. And as the president said on Tuesday night [in the January 28 State of the Union address], it would take just one vial, one canister, one crate to bring a day of horror to our nation unlike any we have ever known."

In his U.N. speech, Powell said: "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives.... Al Qaeda affiliates based in Baghdad now coordinate the movement of people, money, and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they have now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months."

Other administration officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, talked frequently about Saddam’s links to al Qaeda.

Were those links confirmed?

That remains an open question. Many Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001; a Washington Post poll in early September 2003 showed that more than 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. When asked about this on September 17, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "I’ve not seen any indication that would lead me to believe I could say that." The next day, President Bush was more direct. "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks," he told reporters on September 18, 2003. Investigations of possible Saddam-Qaeda links continue.

Some critics say the administration exaggerated possible links between Saddam and al Qaeda in order to shape public opinion to support the war. Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, said in July 2003 that the administration’s argument was unfounded. "That he [Saddam] was promoting al Qaeda is absurd," he told the Associated Press. Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence official, called the administration’s argument "faith-based intelligence," saying senior officials had a clear idea of what they wanted the intelligence to show and resisted reports to the contrary from the intelligence community. "There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist operation," he said in July.

What did the administration say about Saddam’s relationship with neighboring countries?

In his October 2002 speech, Bush described Saddam as a "tyrant [who] has tried to dominate the Middle East, has invaded and brutally occupied a small neighbor, has struck other nations without warning, and holds an unrelenting hostility toward the United States."

Was Hussein seen as such a threat in the region?

Saddam was not a friendly neighbor, and leaders in many of the countries bordering Iraq were glad to see him go. Still, some experts say the administration overplayed the idea that he posed a serious threat. "In Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, [there was] no sense of shared threat among the neighbors of Saddam," says Omer Taspinar, foreign policy research fellow and co-director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution. "Even in Europe, no one felt threatened to the extent that the United States did. They believed he could be contained," he says.

Experts do agree that Saddam had long flouted multiple U.N. resolutions, ignoring their requirements to, among other responsibilities, abide by the demands of U.N. weapons inspectors, return property seized when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, account for missing Kuwaitis, sign international WMD conventions, and pay reparations. "From an international legal standpoint, he did not verifiably comply" with the resolutions, Katzman says.

What was the administration’s argument about liberating Iraqis from Saddam’s rule?

In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, 2003, Bush said, "The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein--but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us." In his October speech Bush said, "Freed from the weight of oppression, Iraq’s people will be able to share in the progress and prosperity of our time."

Did this happen?

Yes, to a degree. Saddam is out of power, and the fear and oppression of his rule have ended. The recent discovery of mass graves and the abolition of Saddam government practices such as torture and murder are unquestionably positive developments for Iraqis. But day-to-day life for average Iraqis is difficult; street crimes are common and the economy is in collapse. "They’re freer," says Taspinar, "and they have access to more TV channels and a freer press, and maybe soon political parties, but their quality of life has drastically declined." Administration officials say conditions are slowly improving and will continue to do so.

What did the administration say about making Iraq a democracy?

Bush said in the October speech: "America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity…America is a friend to the people of Iraq. Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us.… The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin."

Has this happened?

Not yet, though the foundations are being laid. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed an Iraqi Governing Council in July, whose members reflect most of the country’s constituencies— Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, and Turkomen. The governing council, in turn, appointed an interim cabinet in September, whose members reflect the same ethnic and religious mix. But the council faces significant challenges to establishing a functional representative democracy, and political activity exposes participants to personal danger: A female member of the governing council, Akila al-Hashimi, was shot on September 20, 2003, and later died of her wounds. Many experts say the administration’s idea of a flourishing democracy being installed in Iraq was too hopeful. "It was taken for granted that democracy in Iraq would come easily," says Taspinar, who calls this attitude "naïve optimism."

What was the administration’s case for democracy in Iraq as an example for other Middle Eastern regimes?

In his February speech, Bush said, "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region…. Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a fully democratic Palestinian state."

Administration officials throughout the summer continued to promote the "democratic domino" theory: that democracy in Iraq would spread to other Middle Eastern nations.

Is this plausible?

Possibly, but it will take a very long time to, first, establish a functioning democracy in Iraq and, second, to judge its effectiveness on the region’s politics. Administration critics say the expectation that democracy will spread from Iraq throughout the Middle East is highly optimistic. And, many point out, the Middle East peace process has not benefited from the Iraq war; in fact, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are dangerously high.

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