Iraq War Wasn’t Just Due to “Bad Intelligence”

Republicans need to come to terms with the poor choices that led to the war.

George Bush Dick Cheney
American president George W. Bush speaks with his vice president, Dick Cheney, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2008 (National Archives)

Republicans are rewriting history when they claim the Iraq War was waged on the basis of “bad intelligence” alone. The reasons for invading Iraq were more complex and the fact that some of the party’s presidential candidates are unable to come to terms with that suggests they could make choices similar to those that informed the last Republican administration’s foreign policy misadventures.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and Marco Rubio, a senator from the same state, both argued last week that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on wrong intelligence that had supposedly shown the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.

Neither was true.

Opponents of the war raised questions about the “intelligence” at the time. Very little of what was advertised was in any way convincing. It later turned out there hadn’t been much more to it. Whatever proof the George W. Bush Administration had (or thought it had) was painstakingly extracted from limited information. Bits and pieces were put together and unreasonable deductions made in order to point the material in the direction leaders wanted it to.

When the spies couldn’t turn up more credible intelligence that Hussein was building biological, chemical or nuclear weapons and intent on using them against the United States, they were sidelined and the “intelligence” effort was put under direct political control — suggesting that the administration wanted to invade all along and was grasping for justifications.

For the likes of Bush — whose older brother was president at the time — and Rubio to pretend that Republican leaders simply acted on false intelligence is disingenuous. They were warned, from inside the government and outside, that the intelligence was dubious at best and that their attempt to conquer Iraq would turn into a disaster.

It did. The United States had no realistic plan, if there was a plan at all, for what to do with Iraq once Hussein was gone.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found, the coalition did not pull out, further belying the insistence of today’s defenders of the war that it was about those weapons all along. Instead, it occupied Iraq for almost nine years and tried to make it into a nation.

American leaders apparently did not foresee that Iraq’s millions of Shia Muslims would be in no mood to share power with the Sunnis who had repressed them for decades.

Not did they have a backup plan in case parliamentary democracy wouldn’t work in a three-nation state that had almost no experience at self-government.

Nor did they envisage that the main beneficiary of the war would be Iran, the nemesis of America’s allies in the Middle East and a country that almost nobody believes is not developing weapons of mass destruction right now and most certainly is supporting terrorists — and was at the time. It took advantage of the power vacuum in Baghdad to help Shiites to power and establish a land bridge between its own territory and Syria, Iran’s only other Arab ally.

The Iraq War was really waged for simple reasons: to remove a dictator and bring democracy and freedom to his people.

Some, like Rubio, come close to admitting as much. He recently refused to say that the war had been a “mistake.” Iraq is “better off” without Hussein, he argued. Although he didn’t say why.

Rubio advocates a more muscular foreign policy to do to other countries what America did to Iraq.

Before thinking about electing someone like him, Americans should ask themselves not only if it’s really their responsibility to remake the world but if they are willing to bear the cost?

Thousands of their soldiers were killed in Iraq. Tens of thousands were injured. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died. And is Iraq really better off today that it was thirteen years ago?

Iraqis still die almost every day in a complex insurgency that has effectively split the country in three. Democracy isn’t working. Iran is on the ascendancy. The war has discredited the United States in the Middle East and can be used to discredit any proposed military effort in the region even if it would be in the American interest.

Hussein is gone. But the fall of a tyrant hardly justifies the lies and mistakes that went into bringing him down. If Republicans refuse to accept that, they shouldn’t be surprised if Americans won’t trust them to run the country’s foreign policy again.