It’s hard to disagree with Robert Kagan’s contention that an intellectually honest evaluation of the wisdom of invading Iraq involves considering the prospect of inaction. As the aims of the war shift, the chances of achieving them recede, and domestic support for Operation Iraqi Freedom accordingly diminishes, Kagan, one of the ablest defenders of the invasion, has written a calm challengeto opponents of the war to face up to this question: What costs would have resulted from a failure to act against Saddam in 2003? Some might contend that the burden is on advocates of the war to reconcile the costs of the invasion with its unclear benefits for U.S. national security. But Kagan’s reasonable invitation merits an answer.
His defense of the war is straightforward. Even knowing what we know now about Saddam’s lack of WMD, it is “entirely possible,” Kagan writes, that the United States “might have faced a more dangerous and daring Saddam Hussein later on and … [w]e might have wound up going to war anyway.” That’s because Saddam, by all accounts, never lost his impulse to dominate the Middle East, which few would contend was tolerable for U.S. interests. His principal obstacle to achieving his goal, international sanctions, was eroding, rendering–here Kagan cites Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger–containment untenable over the long term. And what would have made Saddam “more dangerous”? His ultimate possession of WMD following the ultimate collapse of the sanctions regime. Basing his assessment on the final reports of U.S. weapons hunters David Kay and Charles Duelfer, Kagan essentially argues that we would have found ourselves at some point at the same juncture President Bush contended we faced in March 2003: facing down an aggressive, WMD-armed Saddam.
But there are several problems with Kagan’s scenario. First and foremost is his conflation of Saddam’s intentions with Saddam’s capabilities. It’s reasonable to accept the argument that Saddam desired to control the Middle East. But it’s difficult to accept the argument that he could have. To be fair, Kagan doesn’t assert that in the absence of international pressure Saddam would have achieved anything he desired. But he does argue that Saddam would have “eventually succeeded” in acquiring WMD if international resolve diminished.
The Duelfer report gives reason to doubt this. First, the only WMD that could have truly changed the balance of power in the Middle East was a nuclear weapon–after all, the pre-war calculation of Saddam’s neighbors was that he already possessed chemical and biological weapons. And Duelfer’s findingsabout Saddam’s nuclear weapons program demonstrate how diminished his nuclear capability really was. According to Duelfer, after the 1991 Gulf War, the technological obstacles to Saddam acquiring a nuclear weapon became insuperable. Iraq’s chief remaining asset in the nuclear field was its cadre of scientists–and Duelfer found that the country’s nuclear-related “intellectual capital decayed” after 1995. Even before 1991, Duelfer discovered, Saddam’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program was not particularly advanced. When he pursued his famous “crash program” after invading Kuwait, “there were numerous obstacles–such as deficiencies in cascade development, uranium recovery capability, and weapons design and development–that prevented the Iraqis from succeeding.” What this means is that even when Saddam enjoyed relative freedom of action and was at the height of his interest in obtaining a nuclear weapon, his program could not provide him with one. And any hypothetical post-sanctions resumption of his nuclear program would have taken many years even to return to the fruitless condition it was in when it ceased in 1991.
Then there’s the question of what a breakdown in the international containment regime–what Kagan calls the “key issue” in deciding on war–really would have meant. Assume that at some point in 2003 United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) weapons inspectors finally certified that Saddam was weapons-free and that, as a result, his regime successfully persuaded the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions. (This requires believing the United States and the United Kingdom would have acquiesced, but assume for the moment they would have.) Both UNMOVIC and the IAEA had mandates for continuous monitoring of Iraq’s weapons programs to determine enduring compliance with the disarmament terms of the lifted sanctions, as spelled out in 1991’s Security Council Resolution 687 and 1999’s Resolution 1284. That is, even if Saddam was otherwise out from under sanctions, the international inspections that proved successful in ending his weapons programs would have still represented a significant obstacle to restarting his programs and developing weapons.
What’s more, had Saddam obstructed the ongoing inspections, he would have provided the U.S. with a pretext for action–either to push for renewed international pressure (admittedly an uphill battle under this hypothetical, especially given what the Oil-for-Food scandal has shown about Saddam’s relationship with French and Russian interests) or to take unilateral military action, as in 1998’s Desert Fox bombing campaign. After all, it’s extremely unlikely that any U.S. administration would have ruled out the prospect of military action as long as Saddam was still in power. The U.S. Fifth Fleet would have still patrolled the Persian Gulf, and even if the Saudi royal family ultimately decided it could no longer host U.S. forces on its territory, we would have found more receptive hosts like Qatar (as we ultimately did anyway). Finally, the domestic political cost to an administration that removed its military options from the region with Saddam still in power would have been unbearable; and it’s hard to imagine any prominent member of the U.S. foreign-policy community advising such a course of action.
In short, Saddam, 65 at the time of the invasion, was unlikely to develop the weapons that would have made him more than a manageable threat. Without such weapons, the only other way for Saddam to have advanced his ambition would have been to launch another invasion; but the ease with which the United States repelled a much-stronger Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 suggests that he would have met an overwhelming military response at tolerably low cost to his opponents. Kagan is surely right that historians will have to weigh the wisdom of the war against several counterfactual scenarios–as well as against the very real and very high costs of invading, which include, according to a recent CIA assessment, the creation of a more effective incubator of jihadists than Afghanistan and possibly even long-term damage to U.S. military capabilities. What they probably won’t credit is the idea that Saddam posed an intolerable threat to U.S. national interests.