Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2013

The tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq spurred pundits and newspapers to comment at length on why going to war in Iraq was a mistake, or a good decision so poorly managed that Americans turned against it. A similar question could have been asked in 1975 about sending large combat forcers to Vietnam in 1965.

David Ignatius, the respected foreign affairs commentator for the Washington Post, penned a column March 21 titled "Blunders to Remember" that drew much attention. He had favored the war for years but now confessed, "I owe my readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense."

It took courage for Ignatius to write that column and I applaud his candor in admitting a mistake. But was it a blunder to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein?

Here's another viewpoint.

In 1998, Congress voted overwhelmingly for the Iraq Liberation Act, which President Bill Clinton strongly supported. It called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after he defied many U.N. resolutions to disarm and allow inspectors to monitor an agreement that ended the 1991 Gulf War. Neither a U.S.-British no-fly zone over Iraq nor tough economic sanctions had weakened Saddam's grip on power.

Many experts argue that George W. Bush's decision in 2003 to launch an invasion of Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. There was no threat to the United States or NATO allies, and no compelling economic reason for engaging in warfare. And although many people expressed outrage over Saddam Hussein's massive human rights violations against his own people, this too was not sufficient reason for starting a war.

The only reasonable justification for invading Iraq and ousting its regime was U.S. strategic security interests in the larger Middle East. By 2002, British, French, and U.S. intelligence services had concluded that Iraq's government was surreptitiously accumulating chemical and biological weapons, and probably attempting to rebuild its nuclear program, which Israel had destroyed in 1981. Without the presence of U.N. inspectors in Iraq, verification of these concerns was impossible.

*   *   *

A key question that political scientists and historians are obliged to ask about any president's decision to go to war is this: What would have happened if no action was taken to stop a dangerous threat?

Bill Clinton had to weigh that question when he reluctantly agreed with the NATO allies to intervene in Bosnia in 1995 and stop an ethnic cleansing operation sponsored by neighboring Serbia. The intervention was on a large scale and it stopped the civil war within a few months.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush had faced a similar dilemma when Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, argued that doing nothing to counter Iraq's invasion of Kuwait would whet his appetite to invade Saudi Arabia's oil fields to the south. As a result, NATO allies and some Arab states joined the U.S. in launching a massive attack on Iraq and forcing Saddam Hussein to evacuate Kuwait and agree to disarm his forces. That major military operation was completed within a month.

In September 2001, George W. Bush was confronted with a more immediate crisis: How to respond to the traumatic terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He chose war against Afghanistan to dislodge al-Qaeda from its stronghold there.

In assessing the wisdom of Bush's 2003 decision to invade Iraq, we need to address this question: Did the end/objective (removing a dangerous threat to peace) justify the means (likely costs to the United States)? In my view, the objective was justifiable, but the means of achieving it were fatally flawed by the woeful lack for postwar planning in the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

In addition, President Bush largely ignored the counsel of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department's Middle East experts. Powell, a retired general, had earlier been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Saddam's army was defeated and forced out of Kuwait. Unlike in 1991, however. the force that Rumsfeld assembled to invade Iraq and oust its government was too small to cope with the insurgency that followed.

Still, what would the political situation in Middle East be today if Saddam Hussein and his family were still in power? Barack Obama would no doubt be dealing with a much different set of dangers, in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, and Iran.

It's worth recalling that Franklin Roosevelt was late in bringing America into the European war after France fell to Nazi forces in June 1940. Britain barely survived. Since then, all presidents have sought to avoid taking a similar risk when they see vital U.S. interests at stake.

File last modified on Monday, 8-APR-2013 9:34 AM EST

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