What the hell. Sooner or later somebody’s going to have to give it a whirl, so here goes. To that exceedingly silly question that started out as a way to ambuscade the contenders for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, and which has since gone on even to dumb down considerations of Canada’s continuing contribution to the U.S.-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State, here’s a perfectly sensible answer: yes.
The question: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?”
To get to “yes,” one needn’t resort to whatever excuses an unrepentant Rumsfeldian might try to fob off by way of a justification for the Anglo-American Iraqi debacle that President George W. Bush ushered in with Shock and Awe in 2003. One only has to play along with the clever thought experiment this far: “Knowing what we know now” back in 2003 would mean knowing in advance the consequences of every calamitous decision that was to come. So, sure. Why not invade?
To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. The whole “De-Baathification” project and the disbanding the Iraqi military? Let’s skip that. It’ll just come back to haunt us all in the worst possible way.
It is not an entirely useless question, mind you, not least in such low-brow circles as the Tea Party and Code Pink. It can serve as a rhetorical question that answers itself in ways that equally suit the Republican loon Rand Paul and that serial fabulist, the American counterculture film-maker Michael Moore. Paul will hold up the ongoing bedlam in Iraq and Syria as evidence against those of his fellow Republicans who were eager to arm Syria’s democratic revolutionaries. Moore will readily lay all blame for every bad thing that has transpired in Iraq and Syria during Barack Obama’s tenure on the warmongering American imperialism of Obama’s grisly Republican predecessors.
It’s a way of saying: See? The world would be better now if we had never invaded Iraq, and we should never have invaded Afghanistan, and while we’re on the subject we shouldn’t have overthrown Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, either. But there are quite a few things about these alternative-reality scenarios that cannot withstand even the gentlest interrogation.
For starters, to assert that Libya’s anarchy is attributable to NATO’s air-power intervention, and not NATO’s later abandonment of the Libyan revolution, is to engage in a fabrication every bit as outrageous as anything any Bush administration official might have concocted in the lead-up to Shock and Awe.
In the Taliban slave-state where Afghanistan used to be, thousands of jihadists from Chechnya, Libya, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Kashmir and elsewhere were attending to their exercises in training camps strewn across the landscape in the days before 9/11. Do we really need to run a fan-fiction contest to imagine how that situation would have played out had we all listened to Noam Chomsky and stayed out of it?
As for Iraq, there is a kind of wilful amnesia demanded by the revisionist orthodoxy that “what we know now” is that the world would be a better place if Saddam Hussein had been left unmolested in Baghdad. We know no such thing because we can’t know. But there is something more enfeebling than mere memory loss at work in the pernicious and widely-held misapprehension that the entire Iraqi regime-change escapade was trumped up on a Bush administration “lie” that Saddam possessed WMDs.
It wasn’t even the Bush administration that committed the United States to shifting the Baathist nightmare out of Baghdad. It was the Clinton administration and the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.
At least five years before that, Saddam Hussein was already busy mobilizing jihadist crackpots in his Sunni “Islamic Faith Campaign,” a kind of forward-planning project that anticipated an eventual confrontation with the civilized world. Among Saddam’s Faith Campaign jihadists who went on to hold leadership positions in the Islamic State were Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, a Baathist army captain who showed up a couple of years ago in charge of the Islamic State’s Military Council, Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali, the Islamic State’s senior Iraqi commander, and former Baathist major-general Abu Ali al-Anbari, who went on to command the Islamic State’s Syrian operations.
As for WMDs, “what we know now,” and what we have known since a 1,400-member investigation team assembled by the Iraq Survey Group submitted its report in 2004, was that Saddam Hussein had another forward-planning project in mind. The Iraq Survey Group found that Saddam had hedged on the inevitable collapse of the UN’s Iraq sanctions into the corruption of the oil-for-food program, and he was planning to reconstitute his covert WMD program as soon as sanctions were lifted.
By the legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s account, George Bush did not “lie” about WMDs, and was even a bit of a skeptic. In any case, Bush wasn’t alone in eventually concluding that Saddam was hiding WMDs. Among the most fervent believers were Democrats.
Apart from several American intelligence agencies, the Turks were convinced, the Jordanians were convinced, and even the anti-interventionist French, so rudely traduced at the time as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” also reckoned it was so. It wasn’t the creepy vice-president Dick Cheney who said “there is a problem – the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq.” That was French President Jacques Chirac talking, just weeks away from the day Shock and Awe kicked off.
Here’s Bill Clinton, immediately prior to the 2003 invasion: “It is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons.” Here’s left-wing Vermont Democrat Howard Dean: “I agree with President Bush. (Saddam Hussein) has failed to account for all the chemical and biological weapons he had before the Gulf War … The world would be a better place if he were in a different place other than the seat of power in Baghdad or any other country.”
In the orthodox view, “what we know now” is that everybody was wrong back then and the cost was 162,000 dead Iraqis and roughly $900 billion. The lessons we take from this? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people.
Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.
All that, too, is “what we know now.” So what lessons have we learned?