Doing the Right Thing
for the Wrong Reason
The invasion of Iraq and what
can be learned from it
By Brien Hallett
George W. Bush is having trouble explaining why he ordered the 19 March 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s bad enough that the American and British forces were not greeted as liberators--visions of ecstatic Baghdadi waving flags and kissing grimy grunts replaced by the joyless reality of a sullen population, massive looting, and persistent ambushes. The White House keeps reminding us that “nation building” is hard enough without carping on the reasons why Iraq has to be built, or, more accurately, re-built. Shouldn’t we all be concentrating on the future of Iraq, not its sad past?
True, the future of Iraq is important, not just for the Iraqi, but for the whole region. More, rebuilding Iraq has now become a moral imperative for the United States, if not for the rest of the world. Still, lessons need to be learned. War and armed conflict are a serious business, as Clausewitz famously observed, but George W. Bush and his White House staff treated this invasion with less seriousness than it deserved. They played on the emotions of Americans and hyped our worst fears, instead of talking straight and trusting us with the good and solid reasons for the invasion, as Thomas Friedman kept saying over and over again in the New York Times.
Our fears have centered on terrorist attacks since 11 September 2001 and the homicidal effects of “weapons of mass destruction” since 6 August 1945. Knowing our fears, every effort was made to play on them, first, by linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and, then, by telling us that Saddam possessed great quantities of chemical and biological agents, with a hint that an attempt was made to purchase yellow-cake uranium from Niger, which fore spoke nuclear devastation. The documents relating to the yellow cake have proved to be forgeries, and, more important, were known to have been forgeries. The great quantities of chemical and biological agents cannot be found, as one would expect. For surely the United Nations weapons inspectors were busy doing something besides drinking gin and tonics in their hotel bars during all those years. As for Osama bin Laden’s link to Saddam, it was never credible that Islam’s most fundamental fundamentalist could have anything in common with the Arab world’s most secular modernizer. Osama stood for every thing Saddam opposed; Saddam stood for everything Osama abhorred. How could they possibly cooperate, even against the Great Satan? Upon reflection, the hype was never credible; yet, it was effective because it was repeated often, with authority, to people whose busy lives allow little time for reflection, but whose fears were real.
If the stated reasons for the invasion lacked seriousness, nonetheless, serious reason did exist. They were and are of two types: moral and legal. The moral reasons concern the oppression of the Iraqi people. Who can deny that Saddam’s massive violation of his people’s rights fully justified “regime change?” George W. Bush has, of course, frequently mentioned the “liberation of the Iraqi people” as a reason for the invasion; yet, it was never the main reason. It was never trumpeted, although it was always present, rustling in the background. This moral reason, however, was defective from the White House’s perspective. It was just too moral; it lacked the emotional punch of terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction.” More important though, this morally solid reason has a fatal flaw. Someone will immediately object: “Why Iraq? Dozens of other dictators around the world oppress their people. Many are worse than Saddam; all are bad enough. Why Saddam? Why not the others?”
This standard objection is an example of the better driving out the good. The proper response to it is to note that prudence dictates only selective “regime changes,” since no one possesses the power to right every wrong. Unfortunately though, this proper response quickly leads to the blackest cynicism. For, as soon as one begins to investigate how tyrants are to be selected for “regime change,” one discovers that the relevant criterion is the violation of the dictators’ iron law of survival: oppress only your own people; never venture outside of your own borders. As long as tyrants stay within their own borders, sovereignty and international indifference will protect them. For example, both Stalin and Mao killed and oppressed far more people for very much longer than Hitler ever did. Yet, both died peacefully in their beds after long reigns of the cruelest horrors. Why? Because they were smart enough to murder and oppress only their own people. Hitler made the mistake of invading other countries, murdering and oppressing other people. This made him dangerous. This, the international community agreed, had to be stopped. Not the oppression of the German people, but the violation of international borders and the destruction of sovereign nations. The sad and cynical truth of international relations is that, as long as the abuse is kept within the family, so to speak, it is ignorable, if not fully excusable.
In 1990, George H. Bush remarked that Saddam was like Hitler. The point of the comparison was not that both Saddam and Hitler oppressed their own people, but that both had taken their oppression outside of the family. This, then, is why Saddam became a candidate for “regime change:” He made the mistake of invading, not one, but two neighboring countries, Iran 1980-88 and Kuwait 1990-91. As long as they oppress only their own people, dictators have only to fear their own people. Neither the United States nor the international community will bother them.
In the end then, the moral reason for invading Iraq – to liberate the Iraqi people – has a fatal flaw. It is vitiated by the extreme cynicism of the international community. It is a good reason; indeed, the best of reasons, but it rings hollow. This brings us to the legal reasons.
The legal reasons are also excellent, and, as an added bonus, they lack the obvious cynicism of the moral reasons. But they are bloodless, purely analytical and unable to evoke even the smallest emotion, which is why the spinmeisters in the White House never invoked them. Their only official expression is found in an obscure response by the British Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to a parliamentary question from the Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale on 17 March 2003.1 Despite its lack of emotional punch, Lord Goldsmith’s legal reasoning opens up the way for putting the 2003 invasion of Iraq into perspective and deriving useful lessons about the conduct – or, more pointedly, misconduct – of an armed conflict.
Baroness Ramsay had asked the Attorney General for his “view of the legal basis for the use of force against Iraq.” In response, Lord Goldsmith produced a nine-point argument based upon Security Council Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441. All three resolutions were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the chapter under which peace enforcement missions (also known as armed conflicts) are authorized. Resolution 678 (1990) is the original resolution that authorizes the “use of all necessary means” to liberate Kuwait. Resolution 687 (1991) confirms the Security Council’s acceptance of the cease-fire negotiated by General Norman Schwarzkoph that committed Iraq to account for and destroy all of its nuclear, biologic, and chemical (NBC) capabilities. Resolution 1441 (2002) determines that Iraq is “in material breach” of its commitments under Resolution 687 and provides one last chance for her to come into compliance.
The legal logic of these three resolutions is that the cease-fire held only so long as Iraq was not “in material breach” of its commitments to destroy its NBC capabilities. Consequently, “the authority to use force under resolution 678 [is] revived” as soon as Iraq is found to be “in material breach” of her commitments, which is what Resolution 1441 explicitly found. In addition, Lord Goldsmith argued, because Resolution 1441 does not call explicitly for an additional decision by the Security Council with respect to the use of force, only for reporting and discussion, no further action by the Security Council is needed to revive the full force of Resolution 678. This last point is intensely controversial, especially by France and Germany. The text of Resolution 1441 is creatively ambiguous; yet, Lord Goldsmith’s interpretation is hardly fanciful. The text does support it. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is, therefore, legally sanctioned by the failure of Iraq to meet the conditions of the cease fire, which annuls said cease fire and revivifies Resolution 678 (1990). More fully, the legal justification for the 2003 invasion depends, first, upon the general acceptance of the soundness of the Security Council’s 1990 decision to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty and, second, upon the determination that Iraq is in material breach of its cease-fire commitments. Assuming the validity of these two conditions, no legal objection to the invasion is possible, in Lord Goldsmith’s estimation.
The first implication of Attorney General’s legal reasoning is that the 2003 invasion cannot be justified, much less understood, unless one begins with the events of 1990 and 1991. This is the crucial point that the White House failed to make. George W. Bush spoke of the invasion as if new events – al Qaeda terrorism and an imminent threat from Iraq’s NBC capabilities – were the compelling reasons for the invasion. While this line of argument possesses compelling emotional impact, it entirely misrepresents the facts on the ground. The easiest way to see this error is to switch from a legal to a strategic analysis.
On 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. On 17 January 1991, George H. Bush launched the air campaign, followed on 24 February 1991 by the ground campaign, which rolled over the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and restored Kuwaiti sovereignty in accordance with Resolution 678. At the end of this naval, air, and ground campaign, a cease-fire was negotiated, which was confirmed in Resolution 687. The cease-fire however was extremely tenuous. It was violated almost from the beginning by both sides. As a result, between 1991 and 2003, in addition to the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, the naval blockade to enforce economic sanctions continued around Iraq, while an exceptionally one sided air campaign was mounted over Iraq, altogether making a mockery of the cease-fire. Bizarrely though, the fiction that the cease-fire was still in place and holding was maintained. Throughout the Clinton Administration, this fictitious cease-fire competed with punishing economic sanctions and a very real air and naval campaign to produce a devastating stalemate – devastating for the Iraqi people, the children in particular. In an effort to end this twelve-year stalemate, George W. Bush obtained a Security Council Resolution 1441, officially finding Iraq in material breach of Resolution 687 and initiated a ground campaign on 19 March 2003 under the authority of a “revivified” Resolution 678. By supplying the missing ground component to the twelve-year-old air campaign and naval blockade, he finally achieved “regime change,” which brought the armed conflict begun by his father so many years before to an end.
Notice the great confusion and greater irony. The irony lies in the fact that George W. Bush achieved the objective of the anti-war protestors – “Stop the war,” “No More War.” The confusion lies in the fact that neither he nor the protestors were clear about which armed conflict they were talking about. Was the “war” to be stopped the one his father had started? Or, was it some new, unrelated “war?” Perhaps, one related to al Qaeda terrorism and Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” capabilities. Both George W. Bush and the protestors spoke as if they were talking about this new armed conflict, when the facts on the ground in Iraq told the story of the old 1991 stalemate. Had George W. Bush chosen to speak about ending the old armed conflict, the one begun by his father and neglected by Bill Clinton, he would not be plagued with the unsubstantiated hollowness of his claims about undocumented purchases of yellow cake, the dangers of non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” or incredible links to al Qaeda. True, the White House would have lost the emotional punch of these claims, which might have made it more difficult to convince people that the old armed conflict could be stopped with a new ground offensive. Yet, there was a trade-off. A more serious presentation of the consequence of the strategic facts on the ground, including the difficult alternatives that followed from those facts, would have paid dividends both during ground campaign and in its aftermath, as we can now see.
Exchanging hype, irony, and confusion for a more serious view, it is possible to derive a few useful lessons about armed conflict. The lessons all center on the troubles that a lack of clarity causes. To begin at the beginning, the troubles all began when George H. Bush failed to achieve clarity over the political purpose of the 1991 armed conflict: Was it to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty? Was it to oust Saddam Hussein? Or was it both? Officially it was to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty. This official goal is reflected in Resolution 678. Unofficially, it was both, the hope being that Saddam’s massive defeat in Kuwait would trigger his overthrow by the Iraqi themselves. The uprising against Saddam did, of course, occur, but it was successfully put down with absolutely horrendous consequences for the Shia and Kurds of Iraq. The lives of thousands could have been saved if only George H. Bush had said clearly that the one and only purpose of the 1991 campaign was to restore Kuwait sovereignty, as the Security Council said it should be. Be this as it may, his lack of clarity cascaded down the years to stir up all the subsequent confusion.
The second lesson to be learned concerns the writing of cease-fire agreements. A cease-fire agreement is not a peace treaty. It is only an agreement to cease fire, that is, to stop shooting. Consequently, it should contain only the times, places, and mechanisms for monitoring the cease-fire. Burdening the 1991 cease-fire with terms suitable only for a peace treaty, such as a commitment by Iraq to account for and destroy its NBC capabilities, is simply a recipe for disaster. Had a nice, clean cease-fire agreement been negotiated and had the overthrow of Saddam not been one of the unofficial political purposes, then the negotiations for a treaty of peace between Iraq and Kuwait could have progressed in a rather straightforward manner. But, without clarity of purpose and by burdening the cease-fire agreement with terms that would have been clearly unacceptable even in a peace treaty – what other country would accept similar terms? – an irresolvable impasse was created by George H. Bush.
The third lesson to be learned is that when confronted with an irresolvable impasse that is killing innocent civilians and destroying a country, it cannot be ignored. While Bill Clinton was not responsible for the impasse, he was responsible for resolving it. Not insignificantly, he failed to live up to this responsibility. As Newsweek observed in March 2003, “America has, in effect, been at war with Saddam for 12 years, ever since it drove the Iraqi dictator from Kuwait in 1991 and imposed a ‘no fly’ zone over two thirds of his country. The CIA has tried, off and on again, to get rid of Saddam, and ‘regime change’ in Iraq has been the official policy of the United States government since 1998 [The Iraq Liberation Act, Pub. L.105-337]. But despite occasional volleys of cruise missiles and periodic spasms of determined talk, the war against Saddam was, until September 11, 2001 a phony war, an exercise in wishful thinking, buck-passing, denial and equivocation. For much of that time Saddam was able to declare victory and probably believe it himself” (p. 58).2
Waging a “phony war” may have been good domestic politics for the Clinton Administration, but the costs to the Iraqi people were clearly out of all proportion. The “phony war” needed to end, the sooner the better. Saddam’s continued rule complicated any resolution enormously, however. The options were either a new ground campaign to effect “regime change” or an end to the air campaign and the naval blockade, which would also end the punishing economic sanctions. Neither option was palatable, but either was more acceptable than the continued deaths and impoverishment of Iraq in a “phony war.” Armed conflict is deplorable, but “phony wars” are dishonest.
The last lesson to be learned is that George W. Bush should have been the hero of this sad tale. When he came into office, one of the biggest foreign policy messes left over from both his father and Bill Clinton was Iraq, a mess which Bill Clinton had kept bubbling on the back burner for eight years. The new President also ignored it – until 11 September 2001 – when the mood of the country shifted and a military solution suddenly became possible. Afghanistan, of course, had to be dealt with first. But as soon as that was in hand, he moved deliberately to settle the Iraqi mess.
Unfortunately though, it is very unlikely that George W. Bush will
ever get the credit he deserves. For, he chose to explain his reasons for the 2003 invasion with an appeal to our fears, and not with an appeal to our intelligence and the intractable strategic facts on the ground. He chose not to trust us with the hard dilemma and painful choices that these unforgiving facts created.
Finally, there is one more irony. George W. Bush has presented the 2003 invasion of Iraq as the poster boy for his doctrine of “preemption.” He has depicted it as an armed conflict of choice, not necessity. Afghanistan was necessary. It was provoked, and unforgivably provoked by the attacks of 11 September 2001. But the invasion of Iraq was, according to this new doctrine, by choice; it was “preemptive.” Yet, George W. Bush never had a choice. His father and Bill Clinton made sure of that. For, how can a renewed ground campaign in an armed conflict that has been continuous since 1991 be “preemptive?” The cruel fact of the matter is that George W. Bush was engaged in an armed contest with Iraq, albeit one without ground combat, from the minute he took the oath of office. “Preemption” is simply not possible after twelve years of armed conflict.
At the end of the day, what George W. Bush did is what the anti-war protester asked him to do: He stopped the “war.” He stopped the armed conflict started by his father and left undone by Bill Clinton. There was no “preemption.” What he did was to cut the twelve-year-old Gordian knot by renewing the ground component to the air and naval campaign. Sadly, he will get little credit for what he did because he chose to play on our emotions; he did not trust us to understand the seriousness of the situation.
1. For Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s opinion see: Lords Hansard, V. 646, pt. 5, Written Answers, WA2-3 of 17 March 2003 or http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199900/ldhansrd/pdvn/lds03/text/
30317w01.htm#30317w01_sbhd3 Accessed 11 August 2003
2. Dickey, Christopher and Donatella Lorch. 2003. Iraq’s Most Wanted. Newsweek 31 March, 48-65.