Has the Iraq War Made Us Safer?

That question is the subject of three major paper op-eds today. It’s a reasonable one to ask, although I’m not sure we’ll know the answer for a couple of years.

USA Today leads off with “Has Iraq War Made U.S. Safer? That’s Questionable.”

After reciting President Bush’s recent speeches explaining why the war was worth it, they present the “devil’s advocate” viewpoint (which is rather clearly their own):

Context, of course, is everything. Bush had to make the keep-the-faith case after what Saddam might have termed the mother of all surprises. When the U.S. went to war against Iraq 16 months ago, the stated reason was to remove Saddam’s supposed vast stockpiles of unconventional weapons that he could use against the region or sell to terrorists. There was ample reason to believe he had those weapons. But a Senate report last week detailed intelligence failures that provided a dud casus belli. Even so, it now seems obvious that the administration misjudged the ramifications of its rush to go to war. Predictions of a fast, sure victory followed by a stable peace ring more hollow with each new U.S. casualty.

The war on terrorism could join the casualty list. Differences over Iraq have split us from allies who rallied to our side after 9/11, and Iraq has drained resources from other needs, most notably in Afghanistan, where warlords still rule most of the country. Iraq could yet settle into some form of Islamic democracy. And terrorists there might become as scarce as before the war began. But the argument that we are safer from terrorism now because we went to war in Iraq is dubious at best.

Strangely, they don’t actually explain why they think that.

Condoleeza Rice has a response piece entitled, oddly enough, “U.S., World Clearly Are Safer.”

Lord Butler’s panel released a report this week on the accuracy of Britain’s intelligence prior to the Iraq war. It is the latest addition to a list of investigations, including those by former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay and the Senate Intelligence Committee. None disputes that Saddam Hussein had contacts with and ties to terrorists. None disputes that he possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), used them against innocents, desired to resume their production and had capabilities that would have let him do so over time. None disputes his 12-year history of deceit, obstruction of United Nations weapons inspections or material breach of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. And no one disputes his failure to prove he had destroyed his WMD stockpiles as required by U.N. Resolution 1441.

In choosing a course of action in Iraq, President Bush had to consider these facts and answer simple questions: Could the international community continue to accept Saddam’s 12-year defiance of its will, or would the world be safer if the word of the United Nations were seen to count and have consequences? Could the U.S., in the post-9/11 world, continue to hope for the best from Saddam, or would America be safer with his removal? The president and an international coalition concluded that Saddam had to go, and events since his removal have proved this judgment right. Iraq is no longer supporting terrorists, threatening the region or pursuing WMD.

Our efforts in Iraq have been critical to success in the global war on terror. Afghanistan today is an emerging democracy, no longer providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi has surrendered his nuclear-weapons program. Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s secret nuclear-proliferation network, which sold technology and know-how to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes, has been exposed. And the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are U.S. allies in the fight to root out terrorism. All of these developments have made America and the world safer places.

As democracy gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded that no democratic nation in the world threatens America. Saddam’s removal has advanced peace and democracy throughout the broader Middle East. America and the world are clearly safer with this tyrant in the jail cell he has earned.

Meanwhile, the New York Times weighs in with “A Pause For Hindsight.” Ostensibly, the piece is a confessional about their own mistakes in covering the war. In reality, it’s an argument that they were duped.

At the time, we believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding large quantities of chemical and biological weapons because we assumed that he would have behaved differently if he wasn’t. If there were no weapons, we thought, Iraq would surely have cooperated fully with weapons inspectors to avoid the pain of years under an international embargo and, in the end, a war that it was certain to lose. That was a reasonable theory, one almost universally accepted in Washington and widely credited by diplomats all around the world. But it was only a theory. American intelligence had not received any on-the-ground reports from Iraq since the Clinton administration resorted to punitive airstrikes in 1998 and the U.N. weapons inspectors were withdrawn. The weapons inspectors who returned in 2002 found Iraq’s records far from transparent, and their job was never made easy. But they did not find any evidence of new weapons programs or stocks of prohibited old ones. When American intelligence agencies began providing them tips on where to look, they came up empty.


Saddam Hussein was indisputably a violent and vicious tyrant, but an unprovoked attack that antagonized the Muslim world and fractured the international community of peaceful nations was not the solution. There were, and are, equally brutal and potentially more dangerous dictators in power elsewhere. Saddam Hussein and his rotting army were not a threat even to the region, never mind to the United States.

Now that we are in Iraq, we must do everything possible to see that the country is stabilized before American forces are withdrawn. But that commitment should be based on honesty. Just as we cannot undo the invasion, we cannot pretend that it was a good idea — even if it had been well carried out.

Congress would never have given President Bush a blank check for military action if it had known that there was no real evidence that Iraq was likely to provide aid to terrorists or was capable of inflicting grave damage on our country or our allies. Many politicians who voted to authorize the war still refuse to admit that they made a mistake. But they did. And even though this page came down against the invasion, we regret now that we didn’t do more to challenge the president’s assumptions.

I think it’s fair to ask whether what has been achieved in Iraq–or is likely to be achieved–was worth the cost in blood and treasure. Certainly, it exposed a rift in the worldviews of the United States and France and, to a lesser degree, Germany. And, presumably, the resources allocated to Iraq could have been used elsewhere, although it’s not exactly clear where and how.

On the other hand, it’s simply unquestionable that Saddam was dangerous. Even after being easily defeated in 1990 and forced to sign a peace treaty, he remained defiant. He was attacking American forces on a regular basis and several times came very close to provoking renewed war. There’s little doubt that he was pursuing WMD capability and that he had substantial WMD assets at times in the recent past.

It’s very much an open question whether the flood of Islamists into Iraq caused by the war was generated by the invasion or simply an opportunity exposed by it; perhaps some combination is the answer. Still, I’d much rather that our armed forces confront them directly in open combat than that they attack US targets in a piecemeal fashion.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, Science & Technology, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. La Femme Crickita says:

    Of course, Dubya did this without UN approval.
    FOR THAT ALONE the man ought to be re elected.
    Clinton, the boondoggle bubba, still has
    us mired in the Balkans, with the UN micro
    managing it to dust. Just what DID Wesley
    Clark DO there?

  2. Mike says:

    Mired in the Balkans? We now have two permanent bases there – when they drill wells were staying – part of a larger move into other parts of Europe. We could pull out at anytime but why would we? I think we just requested to be able to keep the airbase in Bosnia after the UN pulls out.
    I agree the UN is worthless when it comes to military ops but I don’t think the Balkans missions were conducted incorrectly. Good job Clark – you actually did some planning and accomplished the mission.

  3. 1MaNLan says:

    Lets see… Are we safer yet? Let’s think about it. Arab moderates across the middle East have become radicalized. In Iraq, Kurds, who are reportedly being armed and trained by Israelis, are pushing for Kurdistan. Turks and Sistani Shiites are threatening that this must not happen, or else. Sunnis are feeling disenfranchised and are demanding equal say in whatever government emerges, or else. Continued Chaos, and perhaps Civil War and failed State syndrome, in a nation with the second biggest oil reserves is going to send shock waves through the world for many years to come. Alaawi, and ex Baathist thug who later became a CIA thug may be implicated in a bombing campaign that killed children in the early 90’s. He now is talking about accomplishing what the Americans could not, even though he hasn’t enough police and paramilitary after the Americans gutted the military after the invasion.
    Foreign Nationals, who are the oil experts in Saudi Arabia, are leaving due to increasing security fears while the apparatus of Sate is slow to repsond. the leaders there are involved in infighting, which undermines their ability to deal with the problem. Given the razor thin surplus production capacity there, the threat to world oil supply has increased markedly.
    Despite earlier “mistakes” in naming a clear decrease in terrorist acts, The US government has been forced to acknowledge that terrorist acts worldwide have actually sharply risen since 9/11. American credibility and leadership has been undermined by False claims about WMD, by the still unfolding torture scandal and by incestuous and self serving connections of admin members to the energy industry and of NeoCon ties to Likud. The US citizenry is increasing polarized and angry. Our military has been strained beyond its means and we are unprepared for other major conflicts, should they arise.
    On the other hand, just to name positives, some schools are being painted in Iraq and troops are giving out soccer balls to Iraqi kids in some areas.

  4. You know you’re in deep trouble when someone as smart as Condoleezza Rice has trouble making a solid argument. Notice how she follows “Our efforts in Iraq have been critical to success in the global war on terror” with remarks about a bunch of other countries but not Iraq.

    Fact is neither Dr. Rice nor anyone else knows how this is going to play out.

  5. Bob says:

    Uh, it was a truce, not a peace treaty. And of course, having planes shot at most days doesn’t at all resemble a war already in progress. *Eyes rolling*…


  6. bryan says:

    How are we defining safer? Clearly, terrorists have been occupied elsewhere such that a major attack in the U.S. hasn’t occurred since 9/11. Our level of alert is much higher than it was. Are “moderate” arabs being radicalized? Hmmm. That’s a good question. Got some hard data?

    It is hard to imagine a case where “the peaceful world” (i.e., France and Germany) would have ever agreed to go to war beyond afghanistan.

    Are we safer? Again, what do we mean by “safer”? And can such a word adequately be “operationalized” to give us a true reading?

  7. L-Shuffle says:

    James posted this article immediately after one that claims Bin-Laden intends to kill 4 million of us? Doesn’t that answer the question of whether we’re safer?

    La Femme: Changing your name but continuing to make the same simple-minded points doesn’t really conceal your identity. As for your potshot at Clinton — he started with nothing and became president. You… You post notes in blogland. Maybe he did just a bit better than you…?

  8. nepas says:

    eye rolling bob, thanks for providing the answer. as you say, we’ve progressed from having (u.n.)planes shot at most days to having u.s. troops killed every day. and bin-laden still thrives. safer. sadly, no.