EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
The Bush administration has remained largely on the defensive in the escalating war of words over the merits of its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In contesting the Democrats’ key anti-war allegation–that the president “lied” the country into Iraq by misrepresenting the available intelligence–the White House has concentrated on the indisputable fact that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, Bush-administration officials and their Clinton-administration predecessors, the U.S. and dozens of foreign countries, believed that Saddam Hussein maintained stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, at the least, and probably had an active nuclear program as well. There are, however, a number of other, equally compelling points that can and should be emphasized in defending the administration’s Iraq policy.
First and foremost, it should be made clear that the legal case for war against Saddam’s regime–a subject of continuing debate in Europe, the U.N., and the international-law professoriate–has not been undercut in any way, and certainly not by the failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq. This is true regardless of whether the war’s legality is based on: the inherent right of the United States and its coalition allies to defend themselves against threats to their security; U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force against Iraq in 1991 both to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to restore peace and security in the region, and which has never been withdrawn; Security Council Resolution 1441, passed in the fall of 2002 and finding Iraq to be in “material breach” of its obligations under various preceding resolutions; or some combination of the above. None of these justifications depended on the actual existence in Iraq of WMD stockpiles, and the use of military force was not, therefore, “illegal.”
In this connection, it should be emphasized that at no time was it the responsibility of the U.N. inspection teams, or the United States and its allies, to establish that Saddam Hussein retained a WMD capability. The onus of proving that he had fully disarmed was always on Saddam. This was the price of an armistice, and of keeping his odious regime in power following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War. From a legal point of view, his failure to meet this burden fully justified military action.
LIVING WITH SADDAM
It is perhaps more pertinent to the current debate, however, that the threat assessment upon which the Bush administration acted was fundamentally sound. The only mistake in its calculus, made by the CIA and numerous foreign intelligence services, was positing that Saddam possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons–as well as a concealed nuclear-weapons program–after 1991. It was, however, an honest mistake. The claim that Bush lied about Saddam’s WMD is itself a lie. There is no doubt that the administration sincerely believed that Saddam retained a substantial WMD arsenal.
Indeed, the U.S. viewed the WMD threat as so serious that all of its pre-war planning, including the timing of the attack and the actual combat operations, was conducted in the full expectation that Saddam would use at least chemical weapons against U.S. troops . . .