Michael KreponWMD-Day + 10

President James K. Polk’s war of choice against Mexico from 1846-48 resulted in the acquisition of what became the states of California, Utah and Nevada, as well as parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. Mexico received $15 million in compensation and gave up its claim on Texas. In this war, the United States suffered fewer than two thousand combat deaths.

President William F. McKinley’s war of choice against Spain in 1898 resulted in an insurgency against the victorious U.S. presence in the Philippines and U.S. control over Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba. Fewer than 400 U.S. soldiers died in combat; ten times as many died from disease. The casus belli was the sinking of The USS Maine in Havana harbor. A Navy board of inquiry concluded that the most likely cause of this disaster was the ignition of more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel’s six- and ten-inch guns. The “yellow press” and belligerents on Capitol Hill blamed Spain, whose tenuous empire was one quick war away from disintegration.

U.S. wars of choice morphed into preventive wars even before the demise of the Soviet Union. The results have been chastening. For someone in my age bracket, the less said about the Vietnam War, the better. With the collapse of the USSR, U.S. preventive wars became possible in the Middle East. President George H. W. Bush’s decision to repulse Iraqi forces from Kuwait may have been a war of choice, but it was also essential. His limited war aims resulted in limited casualties and limited combat duration.

President George W. Bush’s war of choice was another matter entirely.

Let me stipulate at the outset that Iraq will do no worse than under Saddam & Sons – but it may not do that much better. Let me also stipulate that it is a good thing to have one less country seeking the Bomb in this region – for now. As for the rest, there is endless sadness. Besides yielding a generation of soldiers wrestling with demons, over one hundred thousand grieving families, and a few trillion dollars in interest-bearing debts, this war produced Nuri al-Maliki, the worst sectarian violence of any country in the world (not counting outright civil wars, like that ravaging Syria), and collusion between Iraq and Iran. In the long run, Iraq’s outlook might improve, but hardly enough to justify these costs.

The only way that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz preventive war could remotely have been justified was if Saddam had the WMD that the U.S. Intelligence Community – with the partial exception of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research – obligingly claimed. Remotely gathered intelligence, even by exquisite technical means, can be subject to inferences that turn out to be exaggerated, especially when those inferences are reinforced by a war-thumping White House and Secretary of Defense, a wounded public psyche inclined to slay dragons, and unreliable human intelligence.

The most skeptical evaluators of Saddam’s WMD holdings turned out to be the inspectors within Iraq operating under the ambit of the United Nations. Even when circumscribed and badgered, they had a better feel for the status of Saddam’s WMD programs than analysts confined to cubicles.

Remember the argument about how deterrence of Saddam and his WMD programs was eroding? How expensive it was to control his airspace and keep U.S. troops forward deployed? The costs of containment and deterrence now appear trivial compared to those associated with the preventive war that followed, with U.S. troops spending a decade rotating in and out of combat.

Regrettably and predictably, there has been no respite from Saddam’s death and his regime’s dysfunctional pursuit of WMD. Proliferation anxieties have now been transposed to Iran. This time, international inspectors are witnessing real nuclear capabilities that could be applied to make real weapons. Iraq is no longer a counterweight to Iran, nor a justification for Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, Baghdad is abetting Tehran’s regional ambitions.

There are clear lessons to be learned from the second Gulf war. Some are applicable to Iran; others aren’t. The authorities in Iran are making it easier to forget cautionary lessons, bit by bit.


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Preventive war? The UNSCOM/UNMOVIC reports and other publicly-available information told anyone who cared to know in 2002 that Iraq had no militarily-significant WMD, and the inspections of 2002-2003 confirmed that. The tanks rolled in anyway.

    The only thing the war was intended to prevent was the collapse of George W. Bush’s unearned post-9/11 power which was already evident in Spring 2002 after the Taliban fell so easily and Americans began to recover their senses. That had to be stopped. It was Karl Rove’s war.

    One country less seeking the Bomb? Iran has the option, and North Korea has the bomb. Subtract Libya and Syria, and you break even. Iraq was out of the game and had been for 10 years before the invasion.

    Iraq will do no worse than under Saddam & Sons? Thus far it has suffered far more than under Saddam and even under sanctions. So, I suppose it is the proverbial long term you are talking about, but we have no way of knowing what would have happened, or when, in some alternate history. Mubarak has fallen, Ghaddafi has fallen, Assad is falling, and a bunch of other nearby dictatorships would fall if we stopped propping them up.

    • J House (History)

      Ask the residents of Halabja or Dujail if they ‘suffered far more’ after Saddam’s rule. Or, take a shovel and dig up a few Shiites with bullet holes in their skulls from the estimated 300,000 in mass graves courtesy of Saddam Hussein.
      I was against invading Iraq, but it is convoluted to believe Iraq ‘suffered less’ under Saddam’s reign of terror against Kurds and Shiites. The dead were Iraqis too.
      You can speak out against Maliki today without fear of your tongue being cut off in the street, or your family disappearing into the night. Yes, long for the days when the citizens of Iraq suffered less.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I don’t dispute the fact that Saddam was one of the most brutal and murderous dictators on the planet. Nor do I withdraw the comparison I made.

      The 300,000 figure you cite is an undocumented pre-invasion propaganda claim; estimates of the cumulative death toll due to effects of the 1991 war, sanctions and 2003 invasion, insurgency, counterinsurgency and civil war (including Maliki’s US-enabled and supervised death squads) range into the low millions, but all these numbers are controversial and inflated/deflated as suits the political purposes of those advancing or citing them.

      It is pretty clear, however, that Iraq’s suffering since 2003 has been greater than in the immediate previous period 1991-2003, under US/UK-imposed sanctions and aftereffects of the destruction of civilian infrastructure in the 1991 war, and that suffering was greater than even the war with Iran.

      Halabja is destined to remain in our vocabulary alongside other locales whose names are synonymous with atrocity; another one is Fallujah.

    • krepon (History)

      UN inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, shortly before three days of US and British bombing strikes. The combination of Iraqi deception and evasion while inspections were underway, plus the expulsion of the inspectors, plus the absence of inspections for more than four years, led me to believe that Saddam had reconstitured his CW and BW programs. I also believed that the second Gulf war was ill-advised.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    —I am going by memory. If I am factually wrong, please correct me.

    —An advisor to Tony Blair, before the March 2003 Iraq War, sent Blair a memo. In it, the advisor said that after the Coaltion of the Willing left Iraq, there would be “Coup de tat after Coup De tat” which would end in a new Sunni Muslim “strong man” who would then proceed to get the same “Weapons of Mass Destruction” all over again.


    The assumption was that the Iraqi Army would not be disbanded, it was. The assumption was that the Iraqi Sunni Muslim minority would rule after the invasion, it did not.

    The assumption was that the blanket term “WMD” would include Chemical Weapons, Biological Weapons, and Nuclear Weapons. Mr. Krepons article obviously mentioned *only* nuclear ones.

    My assumption, now, is that when Saddam told his interogators that without using nerve gas on the Iranian Army, Iran would have won the war, it might be true.

    Granted, Saddam being as crazily violent as he was, he might have wanted nerve gas, or germ warfare agents, or nuclear weapons simply because he was violent.

    But I also keep remembering a short story where a weak empire had a catch-22. If a strong general emerged to lead the army, then he would soon become a threat to the Emperors power, and be removed. If not, the General would eventually over throw the old emperor, and become the new one, removing him from the military scene.

    Could Saddam have a competent, well run General Staff without seeing them as a threat to his power? Could a successful Iraqi General appear without needing to overthrow Saddam, just to stay alive?

    If Saddam used one type of WMD, nerve gas, on the Iranians, because a competent conventional army would unseat him, that sounds like the short story.

    But, in the short story, it was the systematic weakness of the empire that forced competent generals either out of the army and into obscurity, or out of the army and into the throne room. It was not being a really violent tyrant, or the availability of WMDs.

    So, in terms of Iraq now, in 2013, is there a systematic weakness that would force the government there to need to get chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons?

    • FOARP (History)

      “If a strong general emerged to lead the army, then he would soon become a threat to the Emperors power, and be removed. If not, the General would eventually over throw the old emperor, and become the new one, removing him from the military scene.”

      Yeah, see Shazli/Sadat, Stalin/Zhukov, Mao/Peng, Hiddenburg/Kaiser Wilhelm. But as the Macarthur/Truman showed us, generals can also have political ambitions in democracies as well – they just don’t (normally) end up with a coup.

  3. Gregory Matteson (History)

    IMO the above characterizations of Iraq are positively rosy compared to reality, as we watch Secretary Kerry beg, plead and bluster, trying vainly to persuade Maliki to stop allowing Iran transit to supply Assad.

    As one of the lonely few who vocally dissented from the Iraq war run-up, I remain dismayed by the pervasive denial of people around me to see the naked Emperor. Only just enough of the national press, namely Knight-Ridder (I was there, as a mere clerk), raised questions, that we can know that the NYT, Post et.al. failed us through sheer cowardice, fearing to speak to power.

    If MSNBC isn’t too leftie to mention, they did a tenth anniversary documentary ‘Heubris’, in which the digital preserved words of those who brought us the Iraq war contradict their attempts to induce amnesia, or worse, re-write our memories.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      In August of 2003, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qausai were surrounded by U.S. troops at a house and fought to the death. After it was over with, Newsweek magazine quoted some U.S. officials publically saying that “the insurgents” should take a hint and realize they should give up now, because they could not restore Saddam’s family to power. I think I remember hoping the staement would be true, and thining how it had develoved into gallows humor by 2005.

      That happened during the war, not the run up to it, and that was quickly forgotten, as well.

  4. Magpie (History)

    You know how I knew Saddam didn’t have WMDs? Because in Gulf 1 he fired conventional Scuds into Israel. The threat was clear: push too hard and we go chemical. The threat worked, and we backed off. We know he had them – and we know he wasn’t going to use them unless pushed.

    If we’d gone in to Iraq in Gulf 2 thinking he DID have WMDs, after all the warning we gave, and making it clear we were coming for Saddam-his-own-self, it would have been the most monumentally stupid idea in history. What President was going to approve a war that would start with thousands of dead Israelis? Seriously? The decision makes no sense if the US thought he still had significant WMD capability.

    The only conclusion that made sense to me was that the US knew his gear was expired and gone, and they knew that Iraq was a soft target. I said this before the war, and I still can’t see anything wrong with the logic. The plan was to have an easy, cathartic war, claim befuddlement over the whole WMD thing, shift perspective to “ding dong the witch is dead”, and collect the votes.

    That they got bogged down so effectively was the unexpected bit.

  5. Johnboy (History)

    Just one nit: “President George H.W. Bush’s decision to repulse Iraqi forces from Kuwait may have been a war of choice, but it was also essential.”

    Actually, GHWB’s response to Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait was “a collective self-defense”.

    The UN Charter recognizes just such a concept in Article 51: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual OR COLLECTIVE self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.

    Kuwait is a member state of the UN, and Iraq most certainly did launch an armed attack upon it.

    So all that is required is for Kuwait to appeal for help and (of course) for the USA to respond to that call and Article 51 becomes applicable.

    Sure, the USA don’t HAVE to respond. It can always look the other way, and often it does.

    But if the USA DOES respond to such a call for help then that response is, in legal-speak, an act of “collective self-defence”, not a “war of choice”.

  6. J House (History)

    You have a short memory…Libya was also a war of choice. It is doubtful Gadhafi would have been deposed without U.S. and NATO bombing coming to the aid of the ‘rebels’. The civil war in Libya was no imminent threat to the U.S., yet the Obama admin took it down. Blowback from that operation has yet to wane, even after Benghazi, the attack in Algeria, the insurrection in Mali, etc.
    Now that the jihadists have MANPADS, mortars, recoilless rifles and enough Semtex to blow our air travel industry back to the Stone Age, I would say the decision to take down Libya is as circumspect as that done to Iraq.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Thought: if the U.S. stopped propping up dictators, would the new governments be more likely, less liekly, or as likely to want a nuclear weapons program?

    —For some reason, I’m thinking of a film about decolonialisation in the 1960s, where a new government built a two lane highway…with the problem being that the new road looked good, but swallowed up the treasury money needed for economic development.

    —If assort dictators fell, would the new governments make similar mistakes, and spend their money on a nuclear progam that “looked good” to the countries majority, but was a mistake long term?

  8. krepon (History)

    Two items worth reading, in my view: an open letter by Andrew Bacevich to Paul Wolfowitz that appeared in Harpers, and Wolfowitz’s rebuttal, on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS.



    • krepon (History)
    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Thanks for pointing us to that.

      I was struck by this comment by Bacevich:

      From five years of listening to these insiders pontificate, I drew one conclusion: people said to be smart—the ones with fancy résumés who get their op-eds published in the New York Times and appear on TV—really aren’t. They excel mostly in recycling bromides.

      Ain’t it the truth. And not just the top dogs; the 2nd and 3rd tier ones, too.

      I very much doubt that Wolfowitz will self-indict as a war criminal the way McNamara did, and Kissinger and so many others never did or still have not.