Policy Analysis No. 502

Iraq: The Wrong War

By Charles V. Peña
December 15, 2003

Executive Summary

President Bush asserts that U.S. military action against Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was in material breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441. But even if Iraq was in violation of a UN resolution, the U.S. military does not exist to enforce UN mandates. It exists to defend the United States: its territorial integrity and national sovereignty, the population, and the liberties that underlie the American way of life. So whether Iraq was in violation of Resolution 1441 is irrelevant. The real question is whether Iraq represented a direct and imminent threat to the United States that could not otherwise be deterred. If that was the case, then preemptive self-defense, like Israel’s military action against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in the 1967 Six Day War, would have been warranted. And if Iraq was not a threat, especially in terms of aiding and abetting Al Qaeda, then the United States fought a needless war against a phantom menace.

In the final analysis, the war against Iraq was the wrong war. Not because the United States used preemptive military force—preemptive self-defense would have been justified in the face of a truly imminent threat. Not because the United States acted without the consent of the United Nations—no country should surrender its defense to a vote of other nations. And not because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—none has been discovered and, even if they existed, they were not a threat.

The war against Iraq was the wrong war because the enemy at the gates was, and continues to be, Al Qaeda. Not only was Iraq not a direct military threat to the United States (even if it possessed WMD, which was a fair assumption), but there is no good evidence to support the claim that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda and would have given the group WMD to be used against the United States. In fact, all the evidence suggests the contrary. Hussein was a secular Muslim ruler, and bin Laden is a radical Muslim fundamentalist—their ideological views are hardly compatible.

Ironically, President Bush provided his own indictment of the Iraq war when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003: “No government should ignore the threat of terror, because to look the other way gives terrorists the chance to regroup and recruit and prepare.” But that is exactly what the United States did by going to war against Iraq. To make matters even worse, the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill for the war and postwar reconstruction.

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Charles V. Peña director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.