Skip to main content

The author finds merit in the invasion of Iraq two years ago by U.S and Coalition forces, not only as a move to preempt terrorist designs, but also in terms of an initiative to advanced democracy in the region. Not all readers will agree with Dr. Abrahamson’s analysis, but he presents a lucid argument in support of his views.— Ed.

George F. Kennan: A personal appreciation

by James L. Abrahamson

“Though the invasion of Iraq and the President’s Wilsonian commitment to freedom are not sufficient explanations for the eagerness with which Muslims now pursue democracy, U.S. policies are certainly the necessary cause….”

U.S. forces did not capture Saddam Hussein until December 2003, but they began entering Baghdad during the first ten days of the previous April, destroying his ability to govern Iraq. With the second anniversary of the dramatic and symbolic destruction of Saddam’s statue in Fardus Square just passed, this seems an appropriate time to assess the consequences of the American-British invasion that ousted the long-time dictator. To give focus to that assessment, this essay will look at the past two years from a double perspective: What the invasion’s critics predicted would occur in its aftermath and what Washington hoped to achieve through military success.

The accuracy of critics’ predictions is the more easily assessed.1 To meet the concern that Saddam Hussein’s government might set entire oil fields ablaze and flood vast areas of Iraq by the destruction of dams, U.S.-UK forces designed a fast-moving ground campaign that prevented both flooding and all but a few oil well fires, the latter of which were quickly snuffed out. Equally alert to preventing damage to Iraq’s infrastructure, Coalition air forces selected bombing targets with an eye to the country’s rapid post-invasion recovery. Nor did the forecast humanitarian disaster occur. A half-million or more starving Iraq civilians did not flee cities in search of food and safety, and the pre-positioned refugee camps on Iraq’s borders remained nearly empty. Prompt action by USAID and other agencies more than replaced the meager rations made available through the corrupted UN Oil for Food program. Rather than the hundred thousand-plus civilian deaths predicted by some, the military campaign resulted in the deaths of few Iraqis. And to everyone’s relief, Saddam Hussein’s forces failed to launch the chemical and biological attacks predicted by some, attacks that would have killed thousands of American and British troops. (Even many critics of the invasion believed he had such weapons and would use them.)

Nor has Iraq succumbed to civil war. Elsewhere in the Mideast an anti-American “Arab Street” has made no effort, as some expected, to overthrow friendly governments in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. If the invasion was, as alleged, an exchange of “Blood for Oil,” it should be remarked that major international oil companies have been slow to invest the billions needed to modernize Iraq’s outdated oil facilities. Though the postwar insurgency (who predicted that?) continues, it is far short of the bloody quagmire expected by invasion critics.

The war’s critics correctly claimed that the administration was planning a preventive war. Though intended as condemnation, something quite different has occurred. As noted historian John Lewis Gaddis has maintained,2September 11 blurred the “old distinction between pre-emption and prevention [by revealing] a category of threats so difficult to detect and yet so devastating if carried out that the United States had little choice but to use pre-emptive means to prevent their emergence.” In its diplomatic preparation for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration “worked hard,” Gaddis wrote, “to win multilateral support for its first act of pre-emption for preventive purposes.” Despite the administration’s failure at the UN, he noted, during the 2004 election campaign Democratic candidate John Kerry refused to reject future use of the pre-emptive/preventive war option, thereby helping to make it a new feature of American grand strategy.

From the critics’ point of view, worse may soon come. On 21 March 2005 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed reforms constituting a fundamental challenge to the UN’s long history of respecting, even sanctifying, the national sovereignty of even its worst member governments. Now suggesting that security and human rights might in future trump traditional respect for sovereignty, Annan urged UN members to “agree on a new consensus . . . to prevent catastrophic terrorism, stop the proliferation of deadly weapons, end civil wars, and build lasting peace in war-torn countries.” He also asked them to embrace a long-standing humanitarian proposal that the UN has a “responsibility to protect” civil populations whose own governments subject them to “genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” If sovereign national governments prove “unable or unwilling to protect their citizens,” the international community should assume that responsibility — to include “enforcement action” by the UN Security Council.5

Had such reforms been in place in 2002, would the Security Council have approved a resolution calling upon member states to overthrow Saddam Hussein, disarm Iraq, and build a better government there? Given the Council’s structure, probably not. The reforms would, however, have strengthened the legitimacy of the U. S, government’s request. That Annan offers them now surely represents a belated UN attempt to respond to new threats to international security and establish new minimal standards for governments in respect to their own citizens.

In regard to Iraq, then, the Iraq war critics’ crystal ball proved no more accurate than it had been regarding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which was supposed to end in a Soviet-style defeat after a long and bloody struggle. Even with the passage of two years, little of what the critics feared has occurred, and American policies they once condemned as unjustified might soon become more acceptable in the eyes of the international community.

This analysis is not to claim that all has gone well in the two years since the U.S. -UK led Coalition brought down Saddam Hussein’s government. There have been mistakes, misjudgments, and deaths aplenty. The Coalition had too few troops on hand to manage the occupation, and the Washington planners seemed to have been caught off-guard by the self-imposed disintegration of the Iraqi army and security forces — in some prewar scenarios contemplated as helping to maintain post-invasion order. Additionally, the widespread postwar looting, destruction of governmental facilities and records, and a Ba’athist insurgency soon reinforced by foreign terrorists, apparently under the authority of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, added to the list of mistakes made.

Even so, the worst of post-invasion Iraq is not analogous to Vietnam, which at its peak had monthly casualty figures exceeding total U.S. losses of the past two years. If not the news media, military historians at least recognize that even the best-trained troops and most experienced commanders face unanticipated challenges as they transition from combat against organized forces to controlling a civil population, especially one previously suppressed by decades of brutal dictatorship. Any one doubting that the execution of military plans often falls horribly short of expectations might profitably read Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, which richly details the many errors and failures of the ultimately successful November 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa. The issue is not that military operations do not go exactly as planned (they rarely do), but whether the forces learn from mistakes.

That so many Americans believe that the occupation of Iraq is going very badly — far worse than is the case — undoubtedly has something to do with consistently negative press coverage. As this essay is written, insurgent attacks have dropped by one-third to one-half in the past month, and, according to Lawrence Kaplan,3 Coalition and Iraqi forces have captured and killed “scores of insurgents in lopsided battles.” For some months, Iraqi civilians have been reporting arms caches and insurgent activity to U.S. and Iraqi forces, and more recently some have even taken up arms against insurgents in their midst.

Any reader of Arthur Chrenkoff’s comprehensive biweekly summaries4 of the good news from Iraq, using sources readily available even to reporters living safely in the United States, would know of Iraq’s improvements in health care, education, and the economy, the progress made in reconstruction, and major developments in society and politics. Though Kaplan acknowledges that the media occasionally run positive stories, he writes that “remarkably few articles have put the pieces together to report a [positive] trend. . . .” The overall tenor of press coverage suggests that, if anything, the reverse is true.” Good news when reported is often but the brief lead-in to a “much longer and gloomier feature on the ingenuity of the resistance.” Why that is so intrigued Kaplan, but that is not a question for this essay.

Accepting that the occupation might have been better managed, that problem is in the past and U.S. policy is overcoming early errors. More pertinent to this assessment is identifying Washington’s strategic objectives as regards Iraq and measuring the extent to which the United States has begun to achieve them.

Most Americans can be presumed to believe that the administra-tion went to war to destroy both Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means of their production, with the end result that he could never employ them against U.S. friends in the Mideast or supply them to terrorist organizations likely to use them against the United States itself. By that standard, the failure to discover the feared weapons stockpiles may lead to the conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary.

The qualification — may — seems especially appropriate because the Iraq Survey Group formed in 2003 found evidence that Saddam Hussein anticipated that the collapsing sanctions regime would soon permit him to resume his pursuit of WMD. As David Kay reported, in his 2004 Senate testimony, the Group found that Saddam was in violation of UN Resolution 1441 and that Iraq’s chaotic and corrupt prewar environ-ment rendered it “even more dangerous than we thought . . . . [I]n a world where we know others are seeking WMD, the likelihood at some point in the future of a seller and a buyer meeting up would have made that a far more dangerous country than even we anticipated . . . .”6

Washington policy makers undoubtedly helped create the public perception that the United States’ principal motive was eliminating Iraq’s WMD. The intelligence on WMD figured prominently in the debate in Congress and the UN Security Council over resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq, as did the emphasis on the Iraqi dictator’s related violations of a twelve-year old series of UN resolutions. Those two justifications had the advantage of being the only bases on which the UN Security Council might have overcome its traditional and usually overriding respect for international sovereignty, except for cases of aggressive attacks on another UN member.

The American president evidently believed the Mideast and the world would be safer places with the overthrow of a ruthless tyrant who had murdered hundreds of thousands of the nation’s own citizens, given shelter to several international terrorists — among them Zarqawi —, and provided aid to Palestinian terrorists. In early 2003 those objectives were even less likely than WMD and violations of UN resolutions to stir the Security Council to action, short of evidence that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 911 attacks. As noted above, that may soon change in response to Kofi Annan’s recent reform proposals for the UN. In 2003, however, the Security Council clearly was unlikely to authorize invasion on the grounds of either humanitarian or incipient terrorism.

However one ranks those four possible justifications for invasion — WMD, violated UN resolutions, terrorism, and governmental brutality — there is no reason to believe that Iraq will one day soon again possess WMD, violate UN resolutions, or resume torturing and murdering its citizens. Its relation to terrorism is more problematic than before. Even excluding the remnants of prewar groups of irregulars such as the Fedeyeen Saddam, there are more terrorists in Iraq now than in early 2003. The new Iraqi government is unlikely, however, to give aid to international terrorists and is, instead, becoming increasingly and effectively involved in destroying its own Ba’athist insurgents and the international terrorists that have been drawn into its insurgency.

Prior to the invasion — and for some time thereafter — a fifth argument7 for toppling Saddam’s government received little public attention, though it was likely the principal and certainly an important long-term reason for which the administration sent troops into Iraq in March 2003. That reason was beginning the process of bringing decent and responsible government to the Mideast, which usually carries the shorthand label “democratization.”

Even as Washington has emphasized bringing democracy to the Mideast, many critics claim that this focus is only an afterthought, a device to distract the public’s attention from the failure to find stocks of WMD. Those opponents of the war should have been paying more careful attention during the run-up to the invasion. The administration’s earlier emphasis on disarming Saddam, for reasons already indicated, must not be carelessly accepted as evidence that U.S. policy makers had not always regarded reform of the Mideast as a principal goal and the only sure means to eliminate the threat of international terrorism. In a 4 December 2002 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, Ambassador Richard Haass, chief of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, addressed at length the need to push the Muslim world toward greater democracy, which he defined as more than institutions and elections. Democracy also includes, he explained, a governmental and societal diffusion of power that is supported by various checks and balances, to include electable opposition parties. “America’s rationale in promoting democratization in the Muslim world,” Haass maintained, “is both altruistic and self-interested. Greater democracy in Muslim majority countries is good for the people who live there. But it is also good for the United States.” Establishing a clear link between Arab democracy and ending the threat of terrorist attacks, Haass maintained that: “Countries plagued by economic stagnation and lack of opportunity, closed political systems, and burgeoning populations fuel the alienation of their citizens. As we have learned the hard way, such societies can be breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists who target the United States for supporting the regimes under which they live.”8

Shortly after Haass spoke in 2002, Boston University Professor Andrew J. Bacevich addressed the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies in North Carolina regarding his recent book, American Empire. Relying on public sources, Bacevich argued that Washington regarded 9/11 as a direct attack on U.S. hopes for an open international environment supportive of American values and American enterprise. The administration’s new national strategy, therefore, made a straightforward Wilsonian commitment to transforming the world order, even by armed force when necessary. The United States aimed to prevent a recurrence of 9/11 by eliminating the conditions fostering and sustaining terrorist organizations, which meant doing for the Mideast what it had done for Germany and Japan following World War II.

In Bacevich’s estimate, the small-minded and cynical critics who accused the administration of launching a war for oil, avenging an attempt to assassinate former President Bush, or endeavoring to aid Israel have not only been wrong, they have missed the point entirely. By invading Iraq, the President attempted no small thing. He sought to reshape the entire Mideast in ways that would both improve the lives of Muslims and better serve U.S. interests and security.

With those arguments in mind, overthrowing Saddam Hussein and reforming Iraq — making it what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called “the first Arab democracy” — were but the first steps, establishing the beachhead of a larger and not always military operation. The administration in Washington realized that the task it had set for itself would not be accomplished in a single presidential term, or even two. “Democratization,” Haass explained, “is best measured not in weeks or months, but in years, decades and generations.” Saddam’s possession of WMD in defiance of UN resolutions presented the opportunity for his overthrow, one that President seized to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and democracy and promote good government and open economies to the entire region.

Haass acknowledged that small steps toward Mideast democracy had already been taken in Bahrain, Yemen, Qatar, and Kuwait almost as he spoke in December 2002. The rate and extent of change since the U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq, however, is surely much more rapid than he expected. Success in Afghanistan, a Muslim though not Arab country, already set an important example when it wrote a constitution, elected a president, and made plans for legislative elections in late 2005. Oft-condemned American and Israeli pressure for Palestinian elections also finally bore fruit, helped by the timely death of Yasir Arafat, the autocratic leader of the al Fatah kleptocracy, and by pressure from PLO young Turks wanting honest leadership and a greater role for themselves. In Iraq, though security problems delayed the creation of its interim government and the legislative elections finally held January 2005, Muslims again demonstrated they were eager to vote and would go to the polls despite credible threats to their personal safety. At this writing, Iraqi legislators are forming their new government and will soon begin the process of drafting a constitution.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the wishes of Muslim peoples are also producing helpful results elsewhere. Egypt’s president-dictator Hosni Mubarak has announced that he will permit opposition parties to run against him in the forthcoming elections in that country, and Saudi Arabia has made a small step in the direction of democracy by allowing half the seats on local councils to be filled by election. That the Saudi royal family has also begun to crack down on its local terrorists and criticize those Wahhabi imams who preach hatred of Israel and the West are also hopeful signs that terrorism can be defeated. In Lebanon, the recent murder of a popular opposition leader brought citizens to the streets, and a UN resolution along with diplomatic pressure have now produced a Syrian promise to end its occupation and remove its military and security forces this month from that country. This should permit honest elections in Lebanon later this year and may undermine Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s hold on power.

Other hopeful developments in the wake of the invasion of Iraq have less to do with political reform. They nevertheless contribute to making the world safer from terrorist attack. Pakistan, though still a military dictatorship, has ended its former close ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban and broken up the Abdul Qadeer Khan network that marketed nuclear weapons technology to states hostile to U.S. interests and — at the right price — might have made it available to terrorist organizations. Whatever Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s reasons, his decision to destroy his WMD programs and submit to outside inspection followed the successful invasion of Iraq. Whether the fire of Iran’s pro-democracy forces can be reignited and, through public pressure, bring about the overthrow of its Shi’ite theocracy remains to be seen.

No one should expect that Mideast reform will occur smoothly and free of significant setbacks. The evidence nevertheless suggests that the region is on the road to a better day, one that will lead to representative governments that respect human rights and civil liberties, economies that can produce wealth in other ways than pumping it from the ground, and societies open and tolerant of diversity even as they reflect their religious beliefs. In reformed societies, young Muslim men and women will be able to find fulfillment in other ways than becoming suicide bombers.

Though the invasion of Iraq and the President’s Wilsonian commitment to freedom are not sufficient explanations for the eagerness with which Muslims now pursue democracy, U.S. policies are certainly the necessary cause of the wonders the world is now seeing. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader and former critic of the United States, has no doubt about that point: “[T]his process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw Iraqi people voting . . . , eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.” Even in the United States, the President has received kudos from unexpected sources. Martin Peretz, liberal publisher of The New Republic, described the American Mideast mission as “real, and far along, and it is showing thrilling accomplishments. It is simply stupid, empirically and philosophically, to deny that all or any of this would have happened without the deeply unpopular but historically grand initiative. . . .”9 

1. For two examples of the prewar criticism, both drawn from the contemporary Internet, see: Pax Christi Netherlands-Cordaid, “Iraq Fact Sheet,” and Michael Schreiber, “Biggest Antiwar Marches Since the Gulf War,” Socialist Action (November 2002).
2. “Grand Strategy in the Second Term,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2005), 5.
3. “News Real,” The New Republic On Line, 24 March 2005.
4The Opinion Journal, an internet publication of the Wall Street Journal, posts Chrenkoff’s periodic reports on both Iraq and Afghanistan.
5. “Statement to the General Assembly,” New York, 21 March 2005.
6. “Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Subject: Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs,” 28 January 2004.
7. Peter Berkowitz, “The Case for Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Hoover Institution Weekly Essays, 21 April 2004.
8. “Toward Greater Democracy in the Muslim World.”
9. Jumblatt quoted in Victor Hansen Davis, “Come the Revisionists,” National Review (11 April 2005), p. 20; Peretz, “The Politics of Churlishness,” The New Republic On Line (31 March 2005)


Following graduation from West Point (1959), James L. Abrahamson began a 27-year career in the US Army, during which he earned a master’s degree from the University of Geneva (1964) and a Ph.D. from Stanford University (1977).


Comments are closed.