February 4, 2014 11:14AM

Hadley and Gates on Iraq

Former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley took to the Wall Street Journal's op ed pages last week to try to make the case that the Iraq war was worth fighting.

The particulars of Saddam Hussein's tyranny are familiar: 

two wars against his neighbors resulting in about a million deaths; brutalization of his own people killing tens if not hundreds of thousands; use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds; lifelong support for terrorism; open defiance of the U.N. Security Council.... 

Leaving Saddam in power would have badly undermined the credibility of the U.N. and the U.S. As Iran—Saddam's mortal enemy—restarted its nuclear program after 2005, Saddam would have resuscitated his own, igniting a nuclear-arms race. Saddam would likely have intervened in the uprising against Syria's Bashar Assad, fanning the sectarian conflict that now threatens much of the Middle East.

The removal of Saddam opened up a very different possibility: an Iraq in which Sunni, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and other minorities would work together to build a democratic and peaceful future...

Notably, Hadley does not repeat all of the claims made by others in the Bush administration in the run-up to the war.

For example, he does not allege that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda terrorists, including those individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks (recall Dick Cheney's assertion that Mohamed Atta had met with "a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service" in Prague; Cheney subsequently denied making any such connections between Iraq and 9/11). Instead, Hadley explains that al Qaeda took advantage of the chaos that ensued in Iraq after the invasion and overthrow of Hussein.

Hadley does not contend that Hussein had a functioning nuclear weapons program (in contrast to Condoleezza Rice's warning that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud"; or Bush's famous "sixteen words" about Iraqi yellowcake), and Hadley's prediction that Hussein would have restarted one after 2005 is purely speculative, and ignores the possibility that Iran restarted its program in response to the U.S. invasion.

Hadley's bottom line, however, is the same as Cheney, Rice, and Bush's: the war was worth fighting.

For a slightly different take, here are a few passages from Bob Gates' memoir. (Gates, Rice and Hadley are now consulting partners). In the book, Gates allows that he publicly supported the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 (unlike his realist mentors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski). He wonders if he "would have been able to prevent or mitigate some of the disastrous decisions that followed," but admits that's "all speculation on my part."

He continues, with emphasis:

What is clear ten years later...are the huge costs of the Iraq War. It lasted eight years, more than 4,000 American lives were lost, 35,000 troops were wounded (the number of Iraqis in both categories many times that), and it easily cost over $1 trillion. The overthrow of Saddam and the chaos that followed in Iraq eliminated Iran’s worst enemy and resulted in a significant strengthening of Tehran’s position in the region--and within Iraq itself.


...the war will always be tainted by the harsh reality that the public premise for invasion - Iraqi possession of chemical and biological weapons as well as an active nuclear program - was wrong.

As much as President Bush detested the notion, our later challenges in Afghanistan, especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I became defense secretary, were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq.

Gates joined the Bush administration in November 2006 with one goal in mind: turning around the failing war in Iraq. He was only partly successful, and not, I would argue, in the parts that mattered most.

The surge of additional troops into Iraq was supposed to rally the American public, buying needed time for the U.S. military to reestablish security in Iraq. This security, in turn, would make space for Iraq politicians to reconcile their bitter differences, and set the stage for a peaceful and stable--and, the Bush administration hoped, friendly to the United States--government.

But U.S. troops never had the power to convince Iraqi politicians to let bygones be bygones. While U.S. troops fought hard, and bravely,the hoped-for reconcilation never occured. Hence the continuing violence in Iraq today.

The Iraq surge also failed to turn around public sentiment toward the war here in the United States. Americans opposed the war when Bush announced the surge in January 2007. They opposed the war a year later, and by the same margin. (Gallup asks: Was the war a mistake? Pew: Was it the right or wrong decision?) Even today, more than seven years after the surge, the majority of Americans do not believe that the war was worth fighting. (Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway scrutinizes recent polls regarding both Iraq and Afghanistan here).

I tend to agree with Jeremy Lott: If American politicians--but Republicans, especially--can't get on the same page with the American people when it comes to the signature foreign policy of the first decade of the 21st century, then those same politicians shouldn't expect to be taken seriously on a host of other issues.