January 15th, 2005 by Rightsideup

It has now been announced that the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq has ended, without finding the weapons being searched for. This has naturally re-ignited the debate about the reasons for going to war in Iraq and the justification used at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and might use them against his enemies in the Middle East and beyond. Since the war has always been unpopular with a (sometimes very vocal) minority and there have always been those who suggested WMDs were not to be found in Iraq, this is reasonable. But the fact remains that (a) the Bush administration genuinely believed that there were WMDs in Iraq and (b) even if there were no WMDs, the war was still justified. It is worth taking each of these points in turn.

(a) The Bush administration genuinely believed there were WMDs in Iraq

This point has been so belaboured by all involved that it does not justify an exhaustive treatment here. The facts, however, are these: not only President Bush and his team, but also the UK government, the UN, previous US president Bill Clinton and many others believed that there were WMDs in Iraq. This belief was reinforced by several facts: Saddam had previously had WMDs and these were not accounted for, Iraqi dissidents and sources within Iraq continued to tell western intelligence agencies that they did exist, there was some photographic evidence of programs still going in Iraq. In addition, in the category of circumstantial evidence, Saddam and his government continued to resist the efforts of the UN weapons inspectors to certify that his previously-held WMDs had been destroyed, behaviour that is difficult to explain unless there really was something to hide.

The question then becomes, how did our intelligence services get it wrong? And why did Saddam Hussein act as if he did have WMDs and fail to comply with the UN ultimatum that would have prevented war? Several explanations present themselves:
(1) WMDs really did exist in pre-war Iraq, but they were destroyed and/or moved to neighbouring countries such as Syria before the war began. Thus, all the evidence was accurate, but the WMDs were no longer in Iraq when the search began post-war.
(2) Saddam Hussein genuinely believed he possessed WMDs, because the culture of fear he had created made his minions mislead him into believing they still existed even when they didn’t. Thus, it is not surprising that the evidence suggested there were still WMDs in Iraq because the leader of the administration himself still believed there were WMDs
(3) Saddam Hussein knew he did not possess WMDs but had to resist the advances of the UN to maintain the respect (if that is the right word) of his people. He could not be seen to be bowing to outside pressure when his whole regime was based on a show of power and intimidation. This does not explain the evidence suggesting that WMDs existed in Iraq pre-war, but does explain his resistance against inspections.

Whichever of these scenarios is correct, it does not change the fact that the Bush administration and many others genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and that this posed a threat at least to Iraq’s neighbours and possibly also countries further afield including the US and the UK.

(b) Even if there were no WMDs, war in Iraq was still justified

The official justification for the war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and that he therefore posed a threat to Iraq’s neighbours and others. This justification was necessary because for many citizens of the US, the UK and other countries involved in the war, the only legitimate reason to go to war was to neutralise a threat against those countries. However, there were several reasons for going to war, and this was only emphasised because it was the most compelling and because there was a need to focus on a single justification to provide simplicity and clarity for the people of the countries involved to rally around.. This justification has subsequently turned out to be less compelling than it seemed at the time, but the other justifications still hold.

Arguably the best reason for going to war was simply that the international community had issued a number of ultimata to Saddam Hussein, with which he had refused to comply, and at some stage the UN and its members were going to have to back up their threats with action to maintain any kind of credibility with dictators such as Hussein. Although the US has been accused ever since of attempting to bypass the UN, the action of the “coalition of the willing” has actually bolstered the position of the UN and its leading members in that it prevented this loss of credibility. An interesting side-effect of going to war in Iraq has been the compliance of Libya with the demands of the US and UK to dismantle its own weapons programs. Regardless of whether WMDs were found in Iraq or not, the need to maintain the credibility of the international community in meeting threats posed by rogue threats remains a compelling reason for the war in Iraq after the fact.

Among the other reasons for going to war were:

  • the need to remove a cruel dictator from power – the “regime change” argument. This argument is shaky on its own, because it is easily argued that other countries have their own dictators, which are at least as worthy of removal as was Saddam, but it adds weight to the other justifications for war when taken collectively
  • the need to establish democracy in the Middle East as an example to the rest of the region. With elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, the argument that Muslim countries are incapable of embracing democracy will slowly be exposed as the myth it is, just as the same myth about Asian cultures was debunked fifty years ago
  • the need to dismantle havens for terrorists across the world. Iraq has long been a safe haven for terrorists. Although some of the attempts to link the 9/11 attacks with Saddam’s regime have stretched the truth, it is the case that terrorists have been safe in Iraq for far too long. The war in Iraq may therefore also be considered a part of the Bush Doctrine that those who harbour and aid terrorists are to be treated like the terrorists themselves.

Therefore, even when the WMD justification has fallen flat, these other justifications, paramount among them the need to maintain credibility for the leading democratic nations in their international efforts, still make the war in Iraq justifiable. All of these arguments will be that much more powerful when the effort in Iraq is finished, when power is handed fully back to the Iraqis and when the insurgency is crushed. But they still hold considerable weight now and help neutralise the argument that the absence of WMDs in Iraq removes any justification for the war.

January 3rd, 2005 by Rightsideup

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