Iraq in Hindsight

August 28th, 2010 at 8:58 am David Frum | 50 Comments |

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The last U.S. combat forces exit Iraq this week. The argument over Iraq is still nowhere near finished.

The costs of the Iraq war are evident to all. Now consider an alternative universe, with different choices –and weigh those costs.

As president, George Bush assessed his options in 2002, oil prices averaged less than $23 a barrel. These low prices had squeezed Iraq’s income and therefore Saddam Hussein’s power.

But war or no war, the price of oil would zoom upward in the 2000s. China had more than 90 times as many cars on the road in 2010 as in 1990. Chinese oil imports grew 7.5% a year, Indian oil imports only slightly less fast. Soaring oil demand from China and India pushed prices higher and higher: averaging $28 a barrel in 2003, $38 in 2004, $50 in 2005, $64 in 2007 and $91 in 2008. A surviving Saddam would have been a wealthy Saddam.

Not only wealthy, but empowered. The international sanctions regime had collapsed in the late 1990s, freeing Saddam to import more or less what he wished, potentially including the instrumentalities of war.

As we now know, Saddam Hussein had not in fact succeeded in reconstituting his nuclear program as of 2003. But Saddam did try twice before to gain a nuclear weapon: He had a program in the 1970s that was wrecked by Israeli airstrike in 1981, and then a second program in the 1980s that was discovered by UN arms inspectors after the First Gulf War.

It seems incredible that a Saddam still in power in the 2000s, unconstrained by sanctions and enriched by Chinese and Indian oil money, would not have tried a third time. Even if Saddam had not sought to build a nuclear bomb, an additional $100 billion or so in annual oil revenues would still have paid for a lot of mischief in the Middle East.

Would Saddam have competed with Iran to fund Hamas? Would he have made common cause with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to support anti-government insurgents in Colombia? Would Iraq have offered haven to al-Qaeda terrorists escaping Afghanistan?

A Saddam-ruled Iraq would not have been a quiet or comfortable place. And when the regime finally did end, it would have ended violently. When the U.S.-led coalition overthrew Saddam, violence erupted between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, leading to an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths. Does anybody imagine that things would have gone better if the regime had ended instead with a Saddam assassination or heart attack?

Blame the Americans, if you like, for not having a better plan ready to contain the violence. But it was not the United States that caused the violence, much less the United States that committed the violence.

Now Iraq is finding its way to stability. For all the country’s many problems, it has an elected government and an effective post-Saddam security force. Would this have happened in the absence of international forces? Or would Iraq have looked like Lebanon between 1975 and 1991, a cauldron of sectarian violence for a generation, with casualties of many multiples of 100,000? Again: We cannot know, but the ugly scenarios are the most plausible.

With hindsight, everybody would fight the Iraq war differently. That is always true for any war. But it should also be true that with hindsight, some war critics should rethink their criticism. The outcome the critics wanted — a long-term stable future for Iraq without the cost and trauma of international intervention — was as much a fantasy as hopes for a swift and easy transition to democracy.

Iraq was on its way to an explosion in 2002. The U.S.-led intervention brought that explosion forward in time, and exposed Americans and allies to the shrapnel wounds. But the intervention may also have accelerated Iraq’s post-Saddam stabilization — opening the way to internal reconciliation and Iraq’s return to the community of nations.

Critics of the Iraq war often compare it to Vietnam. I wonder if the better comparison is not Korea: a war that once looked like a pointless stalemate, but that gained a strategic rationale as South Korea grew into a wealthy democracy. I remember a conversation I had with an American officer when I visited Iraq in 2005.

“What do you hope to achieve here?” I asked. “I mean, you personally?”

He answered: “Someday I’d like to bring my kids to visit a successful Iraq and tell them, ‘I made this possible.’” It’s early yet for this officer to begin planning his return trip. But comparing Iraq today to Iraq then — that trip has come a lot closer.

Originally published in the National Post.

Recent Posts by David Frum

50 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    The original reason for invading Iraq was the fear that Saddam might arm terrorists with his WMD.

    Let’s not forget that, shall we?

    If we had known that Saddam had no WMD, would Bush still have gotten Congress to approve the resolution of military action against Iraq? I doubt it. That resolution came one year after the entire country was scared by the anthrax-terrorism scare (which the FBI has now concluded was caused by a lone nutcase obsessed with college sorority women, not Islamist terrorists). And so everybody was spooked by WMD. If we knew that Saddam didn’t have any, the emotional and psychological rationale for invasion would not have existed.

    Yes, Saddam would have continued to be a real pain in the neck. But without a force of WMD, U.S. military superiority would have kept him in check. And who knows, as Iran continued to move closer to nuclear weapons, we might actually have decided to support Saddam as a counterweight to Iran’s growing military power!

    The real alternate scenario would have been if we had gone all-out in Afghanistan instead of Iraq. If we hadn’t listened to Rumsfeld’s “small footprint” theories, and had poured everything we had into capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen, rather than leaving that job to the undependable Afghan Northern Alliance.

    By now, Osama bin Laden would have been tried swiftly by a military commission, and then executed. How? The appropriate punishment that a military commission could hand down would be execution by firing squad.

    The sight, televised by CNN, of Osama bin Laden being shot by an American firing squad would have had a huge cathartic and pleasing effect on the American people. It would have brought closure to the horror of 9-11. It would have proved to the world that terrorists can’t just murder Americans and get away with it. It would be a historic video that would live for all time.

    But Bush didn’t go that way.

  • Dustin

    Good points both from David and Sinz. As a Marine in the initial invasion, the thought that “Chemical Ali” would use WMDs on us in battle scared me more than anything else. And indeed, sinz, that fear led me to support an invasion I would not have otherwise supported, at least not on such a scale, if I knew the WMD threat was not to be (I still would have supported ‘regime change’).

    That said, I share David’s sentiments on the danger of Saddam’s Iraq, though we’ll never know how all the “what ifs” would have worked out. It’s still too soon for me now, and perhaps ever, for me to view this war objectively. However we judge the war in the future, I only hope the people of Iraq can self-govern as they see fit, and continue to improve their lives.

  • dgkerns

    Unmentioned in DF’s retrospective is the domestic political dimension of the Bush approach to Iraq in the autumn of 2002. Recall that just weeks before the mid-term election, the administration made an all-out media assault re: Iraq’s alleged but ultimately nonexistent WMD’s – with five simultaneous and harmonious appearances on the Sunday talk shows, each confidently trumpeting “mushroom clouds” or their equivalent, this resulting in saturation coverage in the critical closing weeks of the congressional campaigns. A dispassionate examination of the Iraq War decision should not exclude the pre-electoral “Drumbeat” and its motivations.

  • rakeback

    Interesting article. Just what I needed to help me on my report

  • Watusie

    If you are going to speculate on what would have happened in Iraq if we have not invaded, then you’ve also go to speculate on what would have happened in America if George W. Bush has not got his war. Firstly – thousands of our fine young men and women not killed; hundreds of thousands not injured or maimed. Secondly, the war in Afghanistan given the attention it deserved, Osama Bin Ladin killed, giving the American people a measure of justice for 9/11. Thirdly, the billions spent on the war in Iraq not spent, easing our budget problems. Fourthly, Bush defeated in 2004. Fifthly, the economy given the attention it deserved, the housing bubble popped early, no Great Recession.

  • Oldskool

    You don’t have to think it was a bad idea in hindsight, you could see it was a bad idea at the time. Among others, the Knight-Ridder papers nailed it from the getgo but they weren’t carried by papers in major markets so we had to contend with the bullshit fed to us by Bush and his buddies and the cheerleaders at Fox.

    Not menitoned was the emotional rhetoric and it’s cost to this country. Anyone who dared say it was a stupid things to do wasn’t called wrong, they were called unpatriotic and unAmerican. Those sentiments are still used in the vocabulary of the geniuses who thought stomping into Iraq was a great idea. Today they use them against the president and his party for such horrible things as believing everyone should have affordable health care.

    The most mind boggling thing to me is that the people who dragged us into Iraq still offer up their opinions as though their credibility is perfectly intact when a large portion of them should be sitting in a jail.

  • balconesfault

    Skipping the fact that the US probably engaged in a war crime by invading Iraq without UN Sanction … if the goal was really just to take out Saddam, we did not have to “de-Baathify” the country. That decision was executed by the ideologues who populated the Coalition Provisional Authority, and basically guaranteed that the US and the Coalition of the Billing would have to take over all the responsibility for maintaining security within Iraq going forward.

    It wasn’t just about Saddam – it was about creating a free market playground for multinational firms to replace the previous semi-functional socialist state and demonstrate that the neocon vision of stripping away regulations and social programs run by the state and replacing them with an open door to investors and corporations would transform the country into some kind of Randian paradise.

    Implicit in this was a rebuttal of the Marshall Plan which incorporated labor rights and public healthcare and other “socialist” programs when rebuilding post WWII Europe and Japan – the idea that private enterprise and corporations could improve living standards much more quickly than government could.

    But they stripped Iraq’s bureaucracies of everyone with competency, and suffered the double edged sword of everything going to hell without the people who knew how to make things work at the helm, and a bunch of the people who knew how to make things work sitting on the outside pissed off and ready to spend all their ample newfound free time formenting insurrection against the interlopers.

    Heckuva job. If we’re going to engage in realpolitik, we should leave the professional bastards in place, and not bring in amateur bastards just because they’ve worked for the right think tank.

  • llbroo49

    Knowing what we know now, we attacked the wrong country. If the fears were WMD, the Iranians were way way ahead of the Iraqis. In reference to support of terrorisim, the Iranians were way out spending the Iraqis. The Iranians were supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.

    I think we invaded Iraq becasue 1) our armed forces were more familiar with Iraqi military capabilities (I joined the Marines in 1997 and Iraq was a favorite in our training scenarios). 2) It became obvious that catching OBL in Afghanistan was going to be difficult and governing a backward country was impossible, 3) The Bush Admin believed that spreading democracy would counter terrorism- and of the Middle East countries Iraq was the most secular, had an infastructure in place, and prior to the first Gulf War, high literacy rates.

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: Skipping the fact that the US probably engaged in a war crime by invading Iraq without UN Sanction
    That’s false, so you should definitely skip it.

    Article 51 of the U.N. Charter gives every member state the right to undertake military action for its own defense without U.N. approval.

    The invasion of Iraq was no more a “war crime” than were the invasions of dozens of countries and islands by the United States military in World War II.

    it was about creating a free market playground for multinational firms to replace the previous semi-functional socialist state and demonstrate that the neocon vision of stripping away regulations and social programs run by the state and replacing them with an open door to investors and corporations would transform the country into some kind of Randian paradise.

    Bush, the self-styled “compassionate conservative,” didn’t want to create a Randian paradise, either in Iraq or America. (Medicare Part D isn’t something Ayn Rand would have approved of.)

  • sinz54

    llbroo49: I think we invaded Iraq because

    The MAIN reason why Bush decided to shift the focus of counterterrorism from Afghanistan to the Middle East was that the neo-conservatives had a theory that the main terrorist threat to America always emanated from the Middle East. Afghanistan and Pakistan they dismissed as a side show.

    An academician, Dr. Laurie Mylroie, had found what she considered to be strong evidence that the first WTC bombing in 1993 was orchestrated by Saddam in revenge for the Gulf War. Not only that, but she claimed that President Clinton “fabricated” the alleged threat from Osama bin Laden to distract Americans from the “real enemy”–Saddam. al-Qaeda she dismissed as bogus.

    In the 1990s, Dr. Mylroie managed to sell this crackpot theory to Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. They ended up taking the hit for being wrong about Saddam, while Dr. Mylroie remains largely unknown to the American public.

    I used to listen to the David Brudnoy talk show, and Dr. Mylroie was a frequent guest there and she tried to sell us listeners on the idea that we should worry more about Saddam than al-Qaeda.

    Here, you might find this interesting:

    And as Paul Harvey used to say: And now you know the REST of the story.

  • abk1985

    Implicit in the above comments by David is the idea that Iraq has irreducible importance because of its oil. From a realpolitik POV, I could have accepted that as a legitimate rationale for regime change.

    The fundamental problem with the Iraq war was that it was conducted under false pretenses: the belief in WMD’s. There has been insufficient recognition of that fact. I do not think this was a deliberate deception but it was a falsehood that was pursued with too much groupthink and too much haste. It is also certainly true that the specter of WMD’s is the only reason why authorization for this war was ever given in the first place.

    But that’s only the beginning of the problems.

    I opposed the war from the gitgo because I found the evidence for WMD’s dubious going back to the 1990′s. I thought this was seeing what you wanted to see and unfortunately I was right. But that was not my only objection.

    Iraq is a big country (Iran, FWIW, is three times larger) and we did not have the manpower to do this right. You don’t go into countries, decapitate the govt, allow for the (inevitable) destruction of the govt structure and infrastructure and then just leave. Unfortunately, this was just another of the wishful thinking self-deceptions peddled in the run up to the war. General Shinseki was right, and was disgraced.

    We should have, first of all, prepared for a long war and a long occupation. We should have increased the size of the armed forces, by the draft if necessary, and we should have explained that we would be there for ten years or more. We should have had large numbers of troops to protect civilian infrastructure as well as govt structures and not have these embarrassing images of chaos such as we had with the looting of the national museum. Of course, here again, if we had actually prepared for this war we would not have had the assent of the American people.

    Let’s not forget either the wishful thinking behind our belief that we would be greeted with flowers, that Chalabi would be the accepted as president by acclamation, that there would be no friction among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. All wrong, every last bit of it. Anyone who was looking at the situation objectively could see how it would play out. Too few people, especially in the Bush administration, were able to do that.

    As far as I am concerned the invasion was a permanent stain on the Bush administration, and the United States will take a long time to recover. Let’s be honest, David.

    On the other hand, since we’re there, we have to figure out how to proceed from where we are, and not from where we’d like to be. Some day Iraq will be something other than it remains today. When that happens, no doubt the US will claim some credit. But any bright future should not obscure the appalling choices made by the Bush administration, and I am not even talking about the disgrace of having the United States deliberately endorse torture, the deaths of dozens of prisoners in our custudy, and associated acts. What a dark page in our history!

    My guess is that now the US will be embroiled in the Persian Gulf for decades to come. If that will be the case, we have a duty to sell the mission to the American people. In the first place, it’s about energy, and in the second place it’s about security. In the second place, therefore, its about shared sacrifice among the American people, and that includes taxes and the draft. I am not happy to say these things, but if we are going to be warring or policing for the next several decades we better start making the proper commitments and preparations.

    Unfortunately, our thinking is still governed by wishful thinking. We seek to justify what we are doing with elections, whereas we ought to be leaving the natives in these countries to their own devices. Our role should be security and policing, and not using the same troop base over and over again for rotations that leave them exhausted and PTSD’d. Too many people think that we can overhaul the country’s (and the world’s) energy needs with some solar will of the wisp.

    We need HONESTY about how badly we screwed up Iraq, and to a certain extent Afghanistan, as well. We also need HONESTY about the world important energy (oil, gas) in the region, and why it is important for the US to monitor, if not control, the same. We also need HONESTY about the difficult choices and sacrifices the US will have to make to ensure, if not our dominance in the world, at least a safe, secure, and bountiful America for our children and our descendants. We need a mission statement about goals and shared sacrifices and what the future will bring. We are getting none of that from either party.

  • Oldskool

    Iraq was on its way to an explosion in 2002. The U.S.-led intervention brought that explosion forward in time

    There’s so much in there to pick apart it’s hard to know where to begin, but that’s as good as any. If the Bush people believed Iraq was about to explode then their insistance on invading was that much more of a crime. We should have let it explode. We had it contained with no-fly zones and even if they had wmds, they posed no serious threat to us. On the contrary, our invasion led other countries to believe the only way to insure we won’t invade is if they get their hands on nukes.

    Iraq was the worst foreign policy decision in our history. It was entirely unnecessary and everything that happened afterward was predicted by Bush’s own father in his memoir. If only the little shithead had taken the time to read it we’d be two or three trillion dollars richer, a lot of people would still be alive today and A-stan would likely be over and done with by now.

  • DeepSouthPopulist

    There was no reason to attack Iraq other than to do Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s dirty work getting rid of a secular Arab government that was a potential threat to both, and to feed the American military industrial machine.

    Iraq was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, did not pose a threat to the United States, has never posed a threat to the United States, and will never be able to pose a threat to the United States.

    The most egregious lies in the history of the Republic provided the pretext for this war, maybe with the exception of the lies FDR told to maneuver the US into WW2.

    As much as it galls me to admit it, the Far Left was right in this case; their saying Bush lied, People died is true.

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    It seems incredible that a Saddam still in power in the 2000s, unconstrained by sanctions and enriched by Chinese and Indian oil money, would not have tried a third time.

    That is why it was a bad idea for the US to chase the inspectors out by bombing Iraq. Bush did a very good job refocusing the world’s attention on Saddam. A credible threat of invasion was needed for that. But invasion wasn’t a credible threat for Bush, it was a forgone conclusion.

    Blame the Americans, if you like, for not having a better plan ready to contain the violence. But it was not the United States that caused the violence, much less the United States that committed the violence.

    That is false. Anyone who destroys all civil authority knows or should know that bad things happen in chaos. If you removed all civil authority from DC or Seattle or Miami tomorrow, you can bet that ethnic tribalism would come to the fore, as people turn to anything they can for security.

    We invaded a country and consciously avoided planning for the aftermath (see Rumsfeld on Phase IV). We bear that responsibility.

    I’d also stress the points made by dgkerns and Oldskool. This war was timed (conceived?) for political gain. And it was sold in a consciously partisan way. (As Bruce Bartlett puts it about the current time, we have a “sensible but cowardly party” and a “greedy, sociopathic party”). The war was sold just as Hermann Goering would have done: “all you have to do is tell people they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

    The Bush administration chose to use 9/11 to frighten the populace and legislature into acquiescence to a unrelated, unwarranted, and poorly planned war. The Bush administration wanted to turn 9/11 into the US’s Reichstag Fire. Their dishonor must follow them for centuries.

  • dugfromthearth

    had we not invaded Iraq we could have resolved the war in Afghanistan long ago. We would have had reserve troops available to counter Iran, North Korea, and other countries who used our lack of ability to respond to cause trouble. We would have hundreds of billions more dollars less of debt.

    I agree that we are better off with the current Iraq situation than we were with the situation pre-invasion. But factor in the cost and most importantly the opportunity cost and I do not believe it was worth it.

  • DeepSouthPopulist

    Side Note:

    Just to be clear, the United States has NOT withdraw from Iraq.

    There US military is in Iraq right now and will be there for a long time.

  • blowtorch_bob

    There is a school of thought that the real reason they invaded Iraq was to destroy the model. For whatever faults Saddam had, and I’m sure they are legion, he used his oil revenues to build up his country, schools, health, infrastructure (women had the highest educational rates in the world)

    This model had to destroyed. Saddam had to be removed. An excuse needed to be found. Hence WMD’s.

    David, all this talk about Saddam forging international links with terrorists is nonsense. Saddam was hated by El Queada and the like. The fact is that Saddam lived in deathly fear of Iran.

    What’s done is done. I share the view that the invasion has turned into the worst disaster in U.S. military history, planned and carried out by amateurs. Now the remaining U.S. forces in Iraq have retreated to a jumble of bases in the country

  • Mercer

    “Iraq was on its way to an explosion in 2002. The U.S.-led intervention brought that explosion forward in time, and exposed Americans and allies to the shrapnel wounds.”

    That was a reason for going in? You thought that Iraq was headed for a civil war and the US military should be thrust into the middle of it so we could suffer thousands of deaths from the inevitable violence? This is certainly a novel justification to me. If Bush had given this as his rationale for war what do you think the chances would have been for the country to go along?

  • advocatusdiaboli

    A series of excellent analytical and cogent comments by perceptive readers above. I have little to add here on that and won’t. What I do want to add is how pathetic it is to see a commentator and analyst like David Frum trapped between the realization that the war and it’s perpetrator fools are bereft of righteousness, ethics, thoughtfulness, and wisdom and he loyalty to the conservative side that prevents him from acknowledging the fact that the ill-conceived and falsely justified Iraq invasion violated our principles as a nation, wasted astronomical wealth and lives, destabilized one of the most progressive of Islamic nations (once our ally against Iran), and defocused our efforts in Afghanistan. So he pitifully extrapolates pre-invasion conditions to, ineffectively, justify the invasion in a neglectful and selective revision of history and the facts. David, I’d feel sorry for you if your tale wasn’t such a pack of lies. It must be very tough to realize your side has committed a strategic gaff of historic proportions but still feel compelled, against your good sense, to defend it at all costs and fabrications. You and Saddam’s Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf are two peas in a pod on this one.

  • drdredel


    I think you’re mistaken. I think given how political commentary works today this is as close as DF can come to an actual apology and admission of his being wrong. If I can translate his article for you what it says is “Sure, I was wrong, and things went really badly, and we kinda screwed everything up, but can you be SURE that if we hadn’t taken this path, the earth wouldn’t be hit by a giant meteor that Saddam was going to attract with a James Bond villain device he would have built, with all his oil money?”

    Consider that Rumsfeld has yet to write anything that suggests he might have been wrong on any count. Or Bush. Or anyone else who raved in favor of or actively orchestrated this war.

    This might be too cynical but I think that the potential personal fortunes of the men who designed this plan helped them make their decisions a great deal. I’m not saying that was the driving force exclusively, but I think it was a substantial component to their personal pile of reasons for why we should do this.

  • Oldskool

    Iraq will always be a measure of someone’s integrity. There are still plenty of people who will go to their graves swearing it was a great idea and there are those who regret what an egregious waste it was that they argued for.

    You can bet Cheney and Bush will never be contrite and others like Rice, Rumsfield, Perle, Wolfowitcz and Fife probably won’t either and I think it’s partly for legal reasons. As long as they’re alive they’re open to prosecution, if not here in other countries.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    DeepSouthPopulist wrote: “The most egregious lies in the history of the Republic provided the pretext for this war, maybe with the exception of the lies FDR told to maneuver the US into WW2.”

    I’m no historian so I may be wrong about this, but when you mention the “lies” FDR told to get the US into WW2 are you referring to his statements in which he blamed Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor and the ensuing statements by members of Congress during the Congressional declaration of war?

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    This post by DF is why, despite the flack he takes from the Right, I still cannot give him any credit whenever he strays off the wacky Right’s reservation.

    No person who is reasonably informed, intellectually honest and of at least average intelligence could seriously believe the crap that Frum has written. This guy is a joke.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    dugfromthearth wrote: “I agree that we are better off with the current Iraq situation than we were with the situation pre-invasion. But factor in the cost and most importantly the opportunity cost and I do not believe it was worth it.”

    How are we better off now that we are bankrupt in large part because of the Iraq war and political capital Bush gained as a result of the war and then used to push through those ridiculous tax cuts? You’re obviously familiar with the toll in lives, money and wasted global influence as a result of the Iraq war. What did the US gain for this price?

    As DeepSouthPopulist said, Saddam was not, never had been and never would have been a threat to the US. And that is true whether he had WMD or not. This notion that Saddam with WMD would have been a threat to the US is completely unfounded. Now, I understand the urge to rid bad governments of WMD, particularly in the context of 9/11, but that urge should not by itself be a basis for invading a former ally who is no threat to the US.

    We gained absolutely nothing from the Iraq war, but we will be paying for this blunder for decades.

  • llbroo49

    sinz54 // Aug 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Nice theory, but that still doesn’t explain the “buy in” from the State Department or the military. Obviously, they have dragged their feet when it comes to war against North Korea and Iran. Hell, the Army and Marines dragged their feet in any ground involvement in Afghanistan- a conflict they anticipated to be difficult. The Army offered up its Special Forces and turned the rest of the Afghan invasion over to Air Force and Naval Aviation.

    I am sure there were some individuals motivated by ideas generated by Dr. Laurie Mylroie. But everyboody else went along because it was supposed to be easy and would provide tangible results that would be impossible to see in Afghanistan. Early on nobody could agree what victory in Afghanistan would look like, but everybody (of consequence) was sure that victory in Iraq would be fast, cheap, and clearly defined.

    Please re-read my earlier post and explain where I was wrong as you stated. I think you just disagreed with my postion so you could introduce your knowledge of Dr. Laurie Mylroie in to the discussion.

  • easton

    Saddam Hussein was a cancer on the Middle East, and a man who practiced genocide against the Kurds and the southern Shia along the marshland. He would likely have turned over his genocidal regime to one of his sons (one who was even worse than he). Saddam also had a zero learning curve and would have done anything. He did attempt to have GWHB killed, which is causus belli enough for me.
    From a purely humanitarian standpoint his being exterminated was a net good. Of course I understand those that say we can’t kill every bad leader in the world, but this guy did start 3 wars and was an avowed enemy of the US.
    This said, while it certainly is true that his death benefited Iraq, it certainly did not benefit the US.
    I contend it could have.
    Fundamentally Bush did a horrendous job. Rumsfeld deserves a place in infamy for his negligence. I disagree with a few posters though, like abj: You don’t go into countries, decapitate the govt, allow for the (inevitable) destruction of the govt structure and infrastructure and then just leave.
    The destruction of the gov’t structure was not inevitable. We chose to decommission the army. We could have simply appointed a high ranking General as temporary leader, continued to pay the Iraqi army to secure the peace, and then began to withdraw after we killed Saddam, leaving a clear message to the new military junta. You can have this country, just don’t screw with us.
    If the country then descended into Civil War, so be it. They would have bled themselves dry eventually. But we have no way of knowing that would have happened either.
    This was one option, the second was the Shinseki approach. Neither was done. Bush hoped for the best and planned for the best. However, if we had good leadership, it could have been a great success.

  • PracticalGirl


    Welcome to Earth :)

    Watusie brings up perhaps the most direct contrast to Frum’s hypothetical. If it is true that the underlying wisdom for attacking Iraq was to insure that Saddam never got financially powerful, did we not greatly diminish our own power in pusuing this goal? I still say that, perhaps not at the forefront, but in the back of bin Laden’s mind was the very real possibility of how the Bush administration would react and overreact to 9-11, and the possible financial aftermath for the US.

    The question I really have, asked in present tense but with full retrospection, is: Who broke whom?

  • easton

    “If it is true that the underlying wisdom for attacking Iraq was to insure that Saddam never got financially powerful, did we not greatly diminish our own power in pusuing this goal?”
    I think this is faulty, we could have gone in, removed Saddam, left other leaders in place under a military dictatorship, and left, it would have cost us practically nothing. That has been done countless times in History.

    Lets not forget, invading countries and winning easily have generally been a benefit to the invader. Britain built a huge empire doing so. Same with Spain.

  • armstp


    A very amateur piece. You obviously do not have much deep knowledge of Iraq and the outcome.

    You are largely just regurgitating your old Axis of Evil…. be afraid, be very afraid stuff… this is getting old.

    Who cares if Saddam would have been a wealthier man? All the other Arab dictators who were and are no better or worse than Saddam Hussien are also wealthier.

    Saddam has never been a threat to the U.S. and in fact was more of a friend to the U.S.

    I am not sure sanctions collapsed in the 1990s. They continued to have a devasting impact on the Iraqi economy.

    There is no evidence that Saddam would have reconstituted his nuclear program. Far from it. In fact, all that the Iraq war did was was push Iran into more quickly developing their own nuclear program. And even if Saddam was to gain nuclear weapons, so what?

    The damage the Iraq war has done to our military and military readiness and in taking the eye off the ball on Al Qaeda was enormous and makes the Iraq War the single biggest foreign blunder in U.S. history. We gained absolutely nothing positive out of it.

    There was no evidence that Saddam was undertaking any mischief, as you say, in the gulf. In fact, he was rather well contained.

    A lot of “what ifs” in there??? The tooth fairly could give me a million bucks tonight as well.

    The best and most well know survey of Iraqis deaths related to the U.S. invasion is closer to 1 million Iraqis and another 4 million displaced and millions living in much more poverty. That is frankly criminal.

    David Frum, you completely miss the huge elephant in the room. The single biggest outcome of the Iraq war is the rise in power and influence of Iran. At minimum Iraq no longer provides the counter balance to Iran and at worse Iran now has significant control of Iraq.

    How can you write a piece call “Iraq in Hindsight” and never once mention Iran???? This alone discredits your amateurish piece.

    I won’t even bother commenting on Iraq’s elected government. We are just one coup away from being exactly back to where we were.

    Just last week:

    “On Wednesday, the Sunni Arab guerrilla insurgency of Iraq demonstrated it is alive and able to plan and carry out a nation-wide set of terrorist operations. The covert organization set off bombs in 13 cities, killing some 64 and wounding an estimated 274, and targeting mainly police stations and checkpoints. Indeed, the bloody events could be termed a one-day war on the Iraqi police. ”

    For a real pro on Iraq and the Arab world I suggest you read Juan Cole’s recent comments on Iraq.

    “US Military Mission in Iraq ends not with a Bang but a Whimper”

    or read this:

    “Last US Combat Units withdraw from Iraq”

  • armstp


    You are very nieve. I suggest you read more about the run-up to war.

    The only problem was that there was plenty of evidence that Saddam did not have WMD. The U.N. inspections were telling us that. In fact, there was a real lack of evidence that Saddam did have any WMD. We now know that the Bush adminstration just made it up to justify the war. WMD was how they sold the war to the U.S people. WMD was just the fake excuse to invade an Arab country. To exact revenge for 9-11.

    There was no “slam dunk”. Far from it. Just a bunch of lies by the Bush adminstration. They could not prove a connection to 9-11 so they faked the WMD. Again very criminal. And Daivd Frum you directly bare some of the responsiblity for this. You helped stir the fear as a speech writer. David you also have blood on your hands. Don’t you forget that.

    And also you are implying that it is okay for the U.S. to pre-emptively invade another country because they may one day be a threat to the U.S. No Iraqi terrorist has ever attacked the U.S. And there is no proof that Saddam has given any help in any form to any other terrorist who has attacked the U.S. However, there were plenty of Saudis who attacked the U.S. on 9-11. Why did we not invade Saudi Arabia?

  • DeepSouthPopulist



    RE: Pearl Harbor and FDR. I recommend starting here if you care to look into the subject.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    PracticalGirl wrote: “[P]erhaps not at the forefront, but in the back of bin Laden’s mind was the very real possibility of how the Bush administration would react and overreact to 9-11, and the possible financial aftermath for the US.”

    The following is a portion of an email from Osama Bin Laden to Mullah Omar sent on October 3, 2001:

    “3- Keep in mind that America is currently facing two contradictory problems:

    a) If it refrains from responding to jihad operations, its prestige will collapse, thus forcing it to withdraw its troops abroad and restrict itself to U.S. internal affairs. This will transform it from a major power to a third-rate power, similar to Russia.

    b) On the other hand, a campaign against Afghanistan will impose great long-term economic burdens, leading to further economic collapse, which will force America, God willing, to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan, disintegration, and contraction.”

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Easton wrote: “Lets not forget, invading countries and winning easily have generally been a benefit to the invader. Britain built a huge empire doing so. Same with Spain.”

    This is true only if the invaders remain occupiers and exploit the resources of the invaded country. To its credit, the U.S. has not followed this practice.

  • armstp


    The U.S. was responsible for directly or indirectly more Iraqi deaths than Saddam ever was and likely would have been. By your logic we should be in Zimbabwe right now!

  • easton

    armstp, I would not be averse to dropping a laser guided missile on Mugabes palace.
    I can understand saying not get involved in the rights of other countries to commit torture and genocide on their own people, just don’t get moralistic about it.

    And the US was not more responsible than Saddam ever was. Good lord, there was that whole 8 year war with Iran for one in which both sides chewed up their populace as cannon fodder. And to state we were “responsible” for Iraqi deaths when we drove them out of Kuwait is ridiculous. Are you going to argue we were more responsible for Japanese deaths than the Emperor of Japan was during WW2? Responsible means culpable, and up to the second gulf war, we were not culpable for any. We (by which I mean Bush) were during the war by not remotely preparing for it but that is another argument.

    Spartacus, yes, but my point was that you can win wars easily and not have any blowback. We took out Noreiga in a, what, 2 day operation? That worked out well for everyone. (except, of course, Noreiga)

  • armstp


    I think it is completely warranted to put aside the Iraq/Iran war when considering the amount of Iraqi dead that Saddam was directly responsible for . It was a war between two countries, like all wars. It is hard to blame that war entirely on Saddam. Although it is true that Iraq invaded Iran first, there were many skirmishes between the two countries once Khomeini came to power, who was stirring up internal conflict within Iraq’s shite population. So hard to put the entire blame of the Iran/Iraq war on Saddam Hussein. Khomeini and Iran also bare a lot of the responsiblity for that war. At the very least it is debateable that Saddam was entirely to blame for the deaths that occured during the Iran/Iraq war. And I would not be surprised if the U.S. was encouraging Iraq to invade Iran at the time. The U.S. certainly armed Saddam during this period and had a motive to encourage the war against Iran, given the hostage crisis and the kicking out of the U.S. backed Shah.

    In terms of Iraqi death not related the the Iran-Iraq war there are estimates as high as 800,000 Iraqi deaths that Saddam was responsible for. Although this is likely a little exaggerated, given the source.

    Even if you say the number is 800,000 dead Iraqis, excluding the Iraq/Iran war, that Saddam was responsible for, this may still be much less than the deaths of Iraqis related to the U.S. invasion.

    The most detailed analysis, know as The Lancet study done by John Hopkins put the number of deaths directly related to the U.S. invasion at 655,000 back in 2006, but, many think the number is over 1.0 million Iraqis deaths that would not have happened if the U.S. did not invade Iraq.

    “”The Johns Hopkins study estimated that, as of July 2006, 655,000 Iraqis had been killed, about 600,000 of them violently and at least 30 percent directly by coalition forces. It updated an earlier study (Lancet, 10/29/04) that estimated that 100,000 Iraqis had died during the first year of the war. An extrapolation of the Johns Hopkins estimate of violent deaths done by Just Foreign Policy (9/18/07) currently stands at over 1.1 million.

    So it could very well be that the U.S. was responsible either directly or indirectly for the deaths of 1.1 milliion Iraqis and Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for up to 800,000 deaths during his time. So yes you can make the statement that the U.S. may have been responsible for more Iraqi deaths than Saddam Hussein ever was. It is possible.

    And you could go even further if you include the U.S. lead embargo on Iraq and the possibility of Iraqis that died because of that embargo over the years. Although I will not go there as that is much more debatable.

  • exguru


    When he insisted on the Surge, against the majority of Congress, half the pentagon, half the Republicans, 80% of the media, and 99% of the academy, George W. Bush was George Washington at the Battle of Monmouth. (You will recall it was at Monmouth that Washington personally took command from Gen. Lee and turned defeat into victory).

    When it comes out well, and it now looks like it will, everyone in the world will owe the result not to Albert Gore, Jr., not to John F. Kerry, not to Tony Blair, not to Reid and Pelosi, not to Generals Abizaid, Sanchez, Casey, Garner, Myers, Shinsiki, and others, not to Kofi Annan and his pack of thieves, but to George W. Bush, who had the good sense and fortitude to jump David Petraeus above the others in rank, and adopt his plan. Without Bush’s courage in insisting on the Surge, we would have paid roughly the same price for defeat that we have spent for victory, except that the consequences of defeat would have been far, far more costly over many years to come.

    We lost 4,600 honored volunteers, who deserve every possible respect.

    No sound of joy or sorrow
    Was heard from either bank,
    But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
    With parted lips and straining eyes,
    Stood gazing where he sank;
    And when above the surges
    They saw his crest appear,
    All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
    And even the ranks of Tuscany
    Could scarce forbear to cheer. – T. B. Macaulay

  • abk1985

    The Surge Failed.

    There has been no agreement among the Sunnis, Shiites, or Kurds about oil revenue, there has been no agreement about devoluted or shared power, and there are still suicide bombings almost every day. The whole purpose of the surge was to contain the violence to achieve these, and other, strategic aims. None of these aims were achieved. The US still has forces in Iraq, and has a large number of contractor mercenaries doing security work at US taxpayer expense.

    Implementing a surge for tactical aims, after mismanaging and dithering about war aims for FIVE YEARS, is no credit to Bush II, and is frankly a waste of resources, just as the Iraq war was a waste of American blood and treasure. In a tactical sense, all the surge has done was postpone the inevitable, an American retreat in a failed war, and the only victor has been Iran.

    The Surge Failed.

  • armstp


    It is debatable whether the surge worked or how much it worked. The primary strategy of the surge was to focus on Baghdad and put more boots on the ground in Baghdad to stop the violence. By the time the U.S. was able to surge all of its troops into Baghdad, which took several months, the civil war between the Sunni and the Shite was over. Baghdad had been ethnically cleansed of the Sunnis and the violence went down. It is not clear at all whether a few tens of thousands more U.S. soliders had any real impact on squashing the violence in Baghdad, a city of millions. The U.S. military really had no control of the violence in Baghdad, as U.S. soliders were more focused on not being a target of IEDs. In fact, the argument has been made that to a certain extent the violence was higher and the civilian casualties higher because U.S. soliders were attracting IEDs.

  • sinz54

    easton: The destruction of the gov’t structure was not inevitable. We chose to decommission the army.
    The Iraq government structure fell apart, about 10 minutes after Saddam’s statue was pulled down.

    Looters ravaged through government buildings, carrying off whatever they could and burning the rest. There was no one to stop them, because there was no longer any law enforcement, because there were no longer any laws.

    Third world despotisms are personality cults. Take the personality of the despot away, and nothiing remains. You can’t expect to decapitate a regime like Saddam’s and expect the local civil service to continue on as if nothing much had happened.

    The way a conquering army usually handles this problem, is to set up Military Government of Occupation, with its own Military Police (MPs) to maintain order among the conquered peoples. But the Bush Administration wanted to maintain the fiction that we were “liberating” Iraqis from Saddam rather than conquering the country. So Bush shied away from setting up a Military Government of Occupation.

    And the rest is history.

  • sinz54

    abk1985: The whole purpose of the surge was to contain the violence to achieve these, and other, strategic aims.
    And in that, it succeeded.

    The violence has been dampened by something like 95% from 2006 levels.

    The other things you speak of, like agreements on oil sharing and the like, are up to the Iraqi people. And given how little experience they have with representative government, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s going to take them a while to achieve these. After all, they’re used to settling disputes with AK-47s, not with democratic debates. They have a lot of catching up to do.

    Recall that while the American revolutionaries defeated the Brits in 1781, it wasn’t till 1789 that the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified. That doesn’t mean the American Revolution was a failure.

    Things would have gone a lot faster for the Iraqis, if the U.S. hadn’t listened to Rumsfeld, and instead had locked up the Iraqi country tight as a drum after the Saddam regime fell. Our troops should have been given the order to shoot looters on the spot.

  • rbottoms

    Maybe in hindsight deposing Saddam wasn’t worth 5,000 lives, 50,000 service members maimed, 100,000 or more Iraqis dead, and $1,000,000,000,000 US Tax dollars wasted.

    On that basis alone it is an utter failure, even now the clown car government of Iraq can’t agree on anything and they will likely be at each others throats in short order.

    It’s the fault of your dimwit former boss and his pathological need to show his father the size of his cajones. Maybe GW should have just started drinking again, it would have cost us less.

  • The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Looking Back at Iraq

    [...] assesses the costs of the war to America, which she argues are underappreciated, while David Frum contemplates what the cost of not overthrowing Saddam Hussein might have been. I'd recommend reading both pieces [...]

  • William Boulet

    Dear Mr Frum,
    There are at least two problems with your column: First of all, no one knows what the future would have been had the Americans not invaded Iraq in 2003. Conjecture is as futile as predictions about September the 11th handed down the day before. Scenarios are always based on what the authors can imagine. But, on 9/11, the unimaginable happened, and no one now can claim to know what the tomorrow will look like or would have looked like. The most plausible scenarios for September 11, 2001 would seem painfully embarrassing today.
    Secondly, your argument is the same as every other right-wing argument – including that of George W. Bush – I’ve read on this issue: it’s the old either/or argument which goes like this: Had the Americans not invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saddam Hussein would have continued to butcher his people and wreak havoc in the Middle East.
    But it was never an either/or situation. That false dilemma was created by the Bush administration. Colin Powell wanted to go into Iraq in January 2005. Imagine what a difference 20 months of preparation time would have made. Imagine if we had let the inspectors do their job. Imagine if the Americans had been able to make their case to the international community. Imagine if other possibilities – short of invasion – had been explored. It was never “go off half cocked in March 2003 and make a balls up of it or let Saddam Hussein slaughter his people for the next twenty years. That argument has always been based on a dishonest premise.
    The article I would like to see you write would look like this: let us measure the cost of the war in terms of lives lost, families disrupted, personal, collective and national opportunities missed, children who will never grow up to be productive human beings, treasure expended, the wounded who will suffer and be a burden on others for the rest of their lives, the current state of the US and Iraqi economies and the US deficit, in terms also of a more powerful Iran, increasing anti-Semitism in the world, a generation of Muslims determined to take revenge, and then let us measure that against what was achieved, everything that has been achieved in Iraq and as a result of the war, and then we shall see whether it was all worth it. Perhaps it was, but if the discourse is dishonest, we shall never really know.

    William Boulet
    Dunrea, Manitoba, Canada

  • S.L. Toddard

    But it should also be true that with hindsight, some war critics should rethink their criticism.

    Canadian David Frum is one of the most discredited voices in American politics, surpassed only perhaps by the Kristol and Podhoretz. This is why.

  • Iraq in the Long Run -

    [...] and that it may be remembered as the right invasion at the right time — I strongly recommend this piece by David Frum, which argues that it’s almost impossible to imagine “a long-term stable future for [...]

  • Zombie Contentions - The Iraq Syndrome

    [...] that going to war was the right decision, that its positive effects are under-appreciated, and that the unknowable alternative history would likely have been at least as violent, and further beyond our ability to influence it in our [...]

  • The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Just War and Preventive War

    [...] David Frum's recent defense of the Iraq war in hindsight. Nearly every argument he makes for it is speculative. While some of [...]

  • The Shaky Logic of Iraq Revisionism «

    [...] surge that steer clear of the unpopular claim that the war itself was worth it, in recent days both David Frum and Daniel Henninger have relied on counterfactuals to argue that the consequences of not removing [...]

  • S.L. Toddard

    “One thing we can be fairly sure about is that thousands of Americans who are now dead would still be alive and tens of thousands of Americans who are now wounded, some of them catastrophically, would not have been. We also know that America would not be perceived throughout the region and the world as lawless aggressor, our relations with any number of important allies, including Turkey, would not have been badly damaged, and jihadists would not have been given an open killing field on which they were largely free to murder people by the thousands, nor would jihadists have been given such a powerful boost to their propaganda and recruiting. We know that American attention and resources would not have been distracted for years from the war in Afghanistan, which might have otherwise been brought to a close by now, and the American military would not be so badly strained and overstretched. If the U.S. had not invaded, Iranian influence in the region would not have grown as much as it has, a refugee crisis in which millions have been displaced and Iraq’s professional classes have been decimated would not have occurred, and the complete dismantling of the Iraqi state and military apparatus would not have happened.”