Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Why Iraq? Why then? 

I was recently in a comment-discussion on The Command Post and, as it often does there, the topic shifted to include the reasons for us going into Iraq. It was a pleasant conversation, devoid of the usual sophomoric name-calling and knee-jerk reactions, and I was greatly complimented by the remarks of one of the participants who, while not sure of the actions taken, felt I had provided a good argument for them. Encouraged by Kevin's words, I will try and recreate the salient points and elaborate, as needed. As always, though, I'll try to clearly lay out my assumptions.

First, let us look critically at the phrase War on Terror that is often used to characterize the endeavor in which we struggle. I have always thought this sobriquet to be convenient but a bit of a misnomer, as it seems more accurate to say we are engaged in a war on terror with a global reach, the implication being that while we may have concerns from a humanitarian and cultural basis in actions like the IRA used to do, it really wouldn’t relate to the GWOT as the IRA had shown no interest in exporting their terror nor in threatening US national security. If we can agree that my description more accurately reflects the realistic goals of the war, it then seems obvious that there are two primary and simultaneous approaches to the goal: 1. eliminate the terrorists, and 2. eliminate the means by which terrorists achieve global reach. The second may, in the long-term, be the most important, as no one can reasonably expect to prevent all violent intent toward the US. While there are multiple approaches to both goals, and often action on one supports the other, our on-going campaign in Afghanistan has obviously been largely in support of the first. Likewise, I hold the campaign in Iraq was begun to directly support the second (although we are lately making great strides toward the first there as well).

Second, in any discussion of the justification and motives in the invasion of Iraq, we must agree to suspend our hindsight. Regardless of the "X lied" mantra (fill in the X to match the local political leader with whom you disagree), the one consistent piece of data is that everyone who had an opinion on the subject of Iraqi WMD, prior to the invasion, agreed they had existed and, absent convincing evidence of their destruction, assumed they still did. While it is vital that we determine where our judgment was in error or unduly influenced by external influences, it defies common sense to enter into the discussion with an assumption that "X knew" when everyone else in the world thought differently.

Third, while I will agree that Saddam’s Iraq was devoid of terrorist acts due largely to his strong hand, it does not therefore follow that it was devoid of terrorists or terrorist contacts. One need only look to Salman Pak, where facilities were made available to train terrorists in "hijacking planes and trains, planting explosives in cities, sabotage, and assassinations" as well as smaller facilities discovered by coalition forces. Or one could ask about Ansar al-Islam, or the government policy of subsidizing suicide attacks by Palestinians or merely ask where Abu Nidal spent his last days and who footed the bill? While not directly linkable to 9/11, it seems clear and undeniable that Saddam did have ties and connections to various known terrorists and terrorist organizations, including al-Queda.

Now, let us look at the merits of the Iraqi campaign as it related to short-term security goals in light of the situation presented, trying to look at the following without using any hindsight. You are at war, and there is a country in a strategic position in the region that is explicitly hostile. The government of this country has known associations with your enemies. The best estimates are that he possesses WMD (remember, no hind sight here), has demonstrated in the past a willingness to use them and has refused, despite repeated warnings, to prove he no longer has them. Remember also that the ruler of this country had demonstrated petty minded vindictiveness in the past by attempting to assassinate the former President at whose hands he suffered embarrassing defeat. Do you wait it out in the status quo, betting that these presumed WMD don’t show up somewhere you don’t want? Think also of the cost of maintaining the status quo: military assets required in theater to keep pressure on Saddam and protect Saudi oil, diplomatic pressure required to maintain embargos, all based on the hope that Saddam will one day disappear before something too bad happens and relying upon our ability to detect the planning of bad things before they can be executed. Also consider that Bin Laden directly referred to the military presence in Saudi Arabia as a motivation for attacks against the US.

But, as there were certainly other, more strategic, considerations in the Iraq invasion, let us consider these as well. In addition to eliminating another source of terrorist support and removing potential WMD collaboration, the invasion of Iraq was certainly done with a mind to establish not only a staging area in the theater but also building a valuable regional ally against terrorism. "But," some might ask, "didn't we already have that in Afghanistan?" While these were also important in the Afghanistan campaign, there can be no comparison between the potential benefits of Afghanistan and Iraq as an ally. From a geographic perspective alone, Afghanistan lies on the periphery of the Middle East (more precisely, it is part of Central Asia), while Iraq is positioned smack-dab in the middle, between Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the three biggest supporters and exporters of Islamofascist terrorism in the world. Culturally, Afghanistan has its closest ties to its Central Asian neighbors, like Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, while Iraq shares cultural ties with the Arabs, Kurds and Shiia, critical in reaching the people of the region. Afghanistan is a resource poor country with both a low level of general education and standard of living. Iraq, on the other hand, is rich with resources, especially oil, and its people are well educated and have a relatively high standard of living for the region, placing it in an infinitely better position to more rapidly recover from the ravages of war and oppression. Finally, the removal of a brutal, almost universally despised dictator and the institution of a free democratic state would likely provide a motivated supportive people and government as well as a peace-nurturing environment. This "forward base" could support whatever tactics would be called for, if it were as simple as influence by example or even future military action. In short, a more perfect ally in the GWOT could not be imagined.

So, be the President for a day and it's your decision. Do we maintain the status quo, keeping provoking forces in Saudi Arabia, trusting that the imperfect embargoes in place would keep Saddam's strength down and hoping that our intelligence services would detect and understand collaboration between our enemies sufficiently to allow us to stop whatever attack might be planned before reaching execution? Do we continue to keep military and intelligence assets tied up watching Saddam? Do we continue to plan contingencies in the region based upon the assumption of either not having a favorable position from which to strike or relying upon sea-based power projection? Or, do you deal with the devil at hand, commit the assets and remove the threat, working to establish the long-term regional ally that may be necessary for ultimate success in the war? As long as Saddam was in power, he was always a threat to our flank in any action, military or political, we might need to take. In the post-9/11 world, would you have had the level of confidence in our ability to detect and stop another terrorist act before it was too late, especially one potentially involving WMD, necessary to have not invaded?

I have always seen the liberation of Iraq as a pragmatic necessity in the execution of the GWOT and the only question was when we were going to do it. Why Iraq? Why then? Because, for a change, we followed an important maxim of combat and placed the troops in the right place at the right time.

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