Iraq, with hindsight

Mark Goldblatt Author, "Bumper Sticker Liberalism"
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As we near the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, liberals still cling with canine ferocity to the idea that President George W. Bush and his administration duped us into an unnecessary war which ultimately accomplished nothing. It’s an attitude deftly summed up by the bumper sticker, cum antiwar rally cry, cum Upper West Side yoga mantra, “Bush lied. People died.” What do liberals believe Bush lied about? In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and thus needed to be removed from power. Who died? Several thousand Americans soldiers — and, depending on whom you believe, perhaps a million Iraqi civilians.

So let’s unpack these claims, shall we?

What does it mean to say that a person lied? Dictionary.com defines lying as “to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.” That seems straightforward enough. Thus, when President Clinton stood before the cameras and uttered the immortal words, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” that would seem to qualify as a lie. But not so fast. As we eventually learned, Clinton subscribed to a very narrow definition of sexual relations that did not include the act of fellatio. (Perhaps Clinton’s most notable legacy consists of hundreds of thousands of teenage boys trying to convince their girlfriends that oral sex doesn’t count as sex.) Seizing on the definitional wiggle room, Clinton’s squadron of lawyers later claimed that the president’s denials — both under oath in court, and off the cuff in public — of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, although misleading, were not technically lies.

There’s always a way, in other words, to claim that someone who seems to be lying isn’t lying. But let’s hold President Bush to a higher standard. No Clintonian deconstructions. Let’s stick with the dictionary definition of lying and the plain sense of Bush’s own words. On October 5, 2002, six months prior to the invasion of Iraq, Bush said, “Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons.”

We now know those words to be false. Iraq had no stockpiles of WMDs, and no evidence has ever been found that the regime was rebuilding facilities to make them. Therefore, we are half way to the Dictionary.com definition of lying. President Bush did speak falsely. All that remains is to establish that he did so knowingly. Here, of course, it’s helpful if you’re allergic to evidentiary standards. Then you can skip the next step and simply claim that “everyone” knew Iraq had no WMDs — as liberal commentators are now wont to insist. If everyone knew, then Bush must have known. Ipso facto, Bush lied.

But if you’re interested in evidence, you’ve got some pesky facts to overcome. Here’s a partial list:

“There is no doubt that … Saddam Hussein has invigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status. In addition, Saddam continues to redefine delivery systems and is doubtless using the cover of an illicit missile program to develop longer-range missiles that will threaten the United States and our allies.” — letter to President Bush signed by Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, 12/5/01

“[Saddam] has systematically violated, over the course of the past eleven years, every significant U.N. resolution that has demanded that he disarm and destroy his chemical and biological weapons, and any nuclear capacity. This he has refused to do.” — Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), 9/10/02

“We begin with the common belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandate of the United Nations and is building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them.” — Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), 9/19/02

“Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter, and we should assume that it will continue as long as Saddam is in power. … We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.” — Al Gore, 9/23/02

“We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.” — Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), 9/27/02

“We are confident that Saddam Hussein retains some stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and that he has since embarked on a crash course to build up his chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Intelligence reports indicate that he is seeking nuclear weapons, but has not yet achieved nuclear capability.” — Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), 10/3/02

“There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years. We also should remember we have always underestimated the progress Saddam has made in development of weapons of mass destruction.” — Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), 10/10/02

“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.” — Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), 10/10/02

“Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator, leading an oppressive regime. … He presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation. … And now he is miscalculating America’s response to his continued deceit and his consistent grasp for weapons of mass destruction. … The threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real.” — Senator John Kerry (D-MA), 1/23/03

Well, sure, liberals will no doubt retort, that’s what Democrats were saying in 2001-2003. They were going by the same cooked intelligence that the Bush administration was using to bamboozle the rest of us.

Unfortunately for them, there’s also this:

“If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” — President Bill Clinton, 2/17/98

“[Saddam] will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.” — National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, 2/18/98

“We urge you, after consulting with Congress, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions … to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.” — from a letter to President Clinton, signed by (among others) Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Tom Daschle (D-SD), Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John Kerry (D-MA), 10/9/98

“Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology, which is a threat to countries in the region, and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.” — Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), 12/16/98

“Hussein has … chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass destruction and palaces for his cronies.” — Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 10/10/99

Liberals are now confronted with mental gymnastics the likes of which would send even the bendiest Mary Lou Retton wannabe to the Bengay tube. Either they have to argue 1) that the Clinton administration was cooking the intelligence the same way the Bush administration was; or 2) that Saddam had WMDs when he kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, and that he then utilized the window of opportunity when the inspectors were gone to get rid of his WMDs; or 3) that, well, err, umm, my hands are over my ears, so I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!

Were there dissenters in 2003, prior to the invasion, to the common wisdom that Saddam possessed stockpiles of WMDs? Well, yes. There was Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector, voicing his doubts whenever a news agency put a microphone in front of his face. But his history of evaluating Iraq’s WMD capacity was checkered; as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency during the 1980s, he repeatedly praised Iraqi cooperation with inspections at the very moment Saddam was building up Iraq’s WMD arsenal to its highest levels. Blix’s skepticism was echoed by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter. But Ritter’s reliability was iffy as well. He’d resigned his position in August 1998, frustrated by Saddam’s continuous deceptions and by years of chasing down rumors of anthrax stored up camels’ asses, convinced that Iraq still possessed WMDs. Then, a year after he left Iraq, he abruptly changed his mind.

No doubt Bush had heard of Blix’s and Ritter’s views. But does his decision to ignore their hunches and trust the detailed assessments of every major intelligence organization on the planet mean that he knew reports of Saddam’s WMDs were false? Should he also have ignored a specific warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin — who opposed the invasion of Iraq — that “official organs of Saddam’s regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the United States”?

If you think so, you too can write for The New York Times!

But how could the pre-war intelligence about Iraq have been so wrong? As it happens, we now know the answer to this question. According to the FBI agent who debriefed Saddam shortly before his execution in 2006, Saddam wanted the world to believe he still had WMDs. It’s a bizarre thought, to be sure, since the U.N. was imposing crippling sanctions on Iraq based on that very belief. But Saddam ultimately feared U.N. action less than he feared an attack from Iran — which, he calculated, would be more likely if Iran’s leaders knew he no longer had WMDs.

In retrospect, Saddam’s calculus looks altogether logical. He’d fought a brutal stalemated war against Iran in the 1980s and viciously persecuted Iraq’s Shiite majority out of fear they might align themselves with their Shiite neighbor. More alarming still, from Saddam’s standpoint, was the fact that his own military had been decimated by the 1991 conflict with the American-led coalition. If Iran did attack, he had no chance in a conventional war. His last option was a bluff: Since he once possessed WMDs, and the entire world knew it, he pretended he still did. He knew it would annoy America, as well as the rest of the U.N. Security Council, but he figured that the threat of an American invasion was less dire than the threat of an Iranian invasion. What Saddam never counted on, of course, was September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks were Saddam’s worst nightmare because they changed the risk equation for the United States. Suddenly, the prospect of Saddam hiding WMDs went from being an ongoing nuisance to a mortal dread. What was to stop him from handing them off to al Qaeda?

Even a minimal commitment to rational analysis and evidentiary standards, in other words, acquits Bush of bad faith in deciding to end Saddam’s regime. Saddam was suspected of stockpiling WMDs for almost a decade before Bush took office and was determined to look as guilty as possible. If a guy who’s been known to carry a gun is thrusting his hand in his pocket in order to look like he’s carrying a gun, you can’t blame the cop on the beat for believing he’s carrying a gun. Or, to mix metaphors, Saddam was walking like a duck and quacking like a duck; any wonder, then, that Bush concluded he was a duck?

Nothing said above proves that the decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam was wise. History will render that judgment over the next few decades, irrespective of the fruit fly-durable pronouncements of the editorial staff of The New York Times. What it does prove is that Bush did not lie the country into the war.

He did, however, take the country to war, and many people died as a result. It’s grisly to harp on the actual number. It’s also, in a sense, beside the point since one death is too many if the war was unwise. But liberal interest groups have often treated the civilian body count in Iraq as though it were a game of Can-You-Top-This, conjuring up death totals with the scientific rigor of a Magic Eight Ball.

Perhaps the most notorious of these efforts was undertaken by the English medical journal The Lancet. Back in October 2006, when most media outlets were reporting the total Iraqi body count at 60,000-75,000, with occasional high-end estimates of 100,000, Lancet researchers announced that the true number of violent deaths alone was between 425,000 and 800,000. Taking the low-end figure, that would average out to over 10,000 violent deaths per month for the 41 months between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006 when the Lancet survey ended. That’s about 350 per day. According to the Lancet survey, in other words, the average daily death toll was higher than the highest civilian death toll ever reported by the media for a single day.

Independent analysts soon began examining the survey’s methodology. They found that the Lancet folks had surveyed 1,849 randomly selected households, inquired about violent and non-violent family deaths immediately before and after the American invasion, tallied the responses and then multiplied out their results by the entire Iraqi population. But how did they know the respondents weren’t exaggerating the death toll? Because, the surveyors said, 92% of the respondents produced death certificates. Except if you multiply out the death certificate numbers, that means over 92% of the 425,000 violent deaths would have had accompanying death certificates — i.e., a minimum of 391,000 death certificates. But who issued them? Certainly not the Iraqi government, which was reporting fewer than 75,000 civilian deaths from violent and non-violent causes combined.

In other words, the Lancet researchers were either dupes or propagandists. But of course the Lancet figures were adopted in a nanosecond by critics of the war and remained a liberal talking point until September 2007, when a British polling agency called Opinion Research Business, using similar methods to the Lancet’s, upped the ante to roughly 1,000,000 violent deaths of Iraqi civilians.

Both the Lancet and ORB surveys have long since been discredited. The true body count of Iraqi civilians may never be known with any degree of certainty — though most responsible media outlets now put it at roughly 100,000. What is certain is that these people died because President Bush decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam’s regime.

But what was the alternative scenario? It’s not as though Iraq was a tranquil oasis before the invasion. As a matter of fact, during the 1990s, the World Health Organization claimed that 4,000 Iraqi children under the age of five were dying every month as a direct result of U.N. sanctions against Iraq. U.N.I.C.E.F. put the number of dead Iraqi children at 5,000 per month. Again, that’s the body count just for children under the age of five caused by U.N. sanctions.

Those U.N. sanctions ended once Bush removed Saddam.

Certainly, the 4,000-5,000 number was a grotesque exaggeration; Saddam’s own Health Ministry was providing the raw data on which it was based. That didn’t stop liberal stalwarts — knee-jerk celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Martin Sheen, Rosie O’Donnell, Bonnie Raitt, Mike Farrell, Joan Baez, Ed Asner, Jackson Browne, Pete Seeger, Richard Dreyfuss and Richard Gere; Democratic politicians such as John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, John Lewis, Cynthia McKinney and Debbie Stabenow; and logic-challenged commentators such as Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Ward Churchill, Ramsey Clark, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky — from citing the figure throughout the late 1990s in order to denounce whatever aspect of corporate capitalism and American interests they’d targeted at a given rally.

Each one of the aforementioned liberal stalwarts, as you’d expect, howled in outrage at Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Again, the W.H.O. and U.N.I.C.E.F. numbers were hyper-inflated. More realistic estimates range between 1,400-2,000 dead Iraqi children per month as a result of U.N. sanctions. (It’s good to keep such numbers in mind whenever an antiwar activist tells you that the sanctions were working, so there was no need to invade.) But even if the actual number was one-tenth of the W.H.O. and U.N.I.C.E.F. numbers, let’s say 400-500 dead children per month, that still makes the worst suffering of the Iraqi people during the American occupation a humanitarian respite compared with the situation before.

So unless you’re willing to concede that Iraqis were better off with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of their children dying each month, and with Saddam’s jackboot on their collective neck, and with his sadistic sons Uday and Qusay on deck, and afterwards their sons, and so on, and so on, in perpetuity, then you’d have to conclude that Bush’s decision to remove Saddam’s regime was at least morally justifiable.

Bush didn’t lie — and many, many Iraqis were going to die whether the United States invaded or not.

Mark Goldblatt is the author of Bumper Sticker Liberalism, from which the arguments above are excerpted.