Iraq War Time Travel

Matt Yglesias, who was for the Iraq War but ultimately changed his mind, and Daniel Davies, who was against the Iraq War but also for it, have now converged into a “anti-this war now” position.

Dan’s primary objection to the war is that “Bush is a moron” and that it would have been better to wait until he was out of office to have the war. He thinks that there was nothing at stake that couldn’t have waited until 2004. Of course, absent Bush’s sudden demise, his term goes through January 20, 2005 and, quite conceivably (even likely from the vantage point of early 2003) January 20, 2009. Strangely, though, he’d have been happy to go to war even with Bush the moron in charge if only the U.N. had given its approval and/or Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction, a condition that most observers, including those opposed, seemed to think obtained at the time Dan opposed the war.

Matt, on the other hand, acknowledges most of the arguments of the “pro-this war now” camp but still thinks we should have waited:

Obviously, there was disagreement here, but I continue to believe the following two things:

1. The sactions/inspections regime was not sustainable over the long term.

2. Sometime after the sanctions/inspections regime collapsed, Saddam Hussein would acquire nuclear weapons and this would have an extremely adverse impact on the world.

As a result, it was necessary to implement a regime change policy of some sort at some point before Saddam’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. There was, however, not only no reason this had to be done Bush’s way, but (more important, in retrospect, from my point-of-view) there was really no reason it had to be done on Bush’s timetable. The window of opportunity here extended quite a few years into the future, so joining a coalition to block the Bush policy and then joining some other coalition at some other point to implement a different, better regime change policy would have been a totally viable policy option.

Matt’s rationale for waiting is a variant of the “Bush is a moron” view as well:

When George W. Bush is president and is advocating a war and you, too, are advocating for war, then the fact of the matter is that you are advocating that the war be conducted by George W. Bush. That Bush would botch things was a perfectly predictable consequence of said support, based on — among other things — the fact that he’d botched everything else he’d ever done.

This has the same problem as the Davies position, though, of averting a policy decision a minimum of two and potentially six, ten or more years (if Bush were reelected and followed by a like-minded successor). And, again, there was every reason to think at the time that Saddam had an active WMD program and stockpiles of at least the type of chemical weapons he’d actually employed in the past. So, we’d have had to rely on an unsustainable inspections/sanctions regime and hoped that a team more to Matt’s liking was in place before the unsustainability become apparent.

While Dan’s point that decisions are often not now/never but rather never/now/later is correct, it’s less clear to me that this applies to the security arena. There is no evidence of which I’m aware that support from France and Germany–and let alone Russia and China–was forthcoming even had we “given inspections more time.” Even if Blix and Co. had been somehow given the level of access to sites that we enjoy at present–a rather doubtful scenario–it’s far from clear that we’d have taken their non-finding of WMD as evidence that there in fact are no WMD. The U.N. Security Council gave Saddam a deadline to document what happened to his stockpiles or face “serious consequences.” He failed to take the deadline or forthcoming consequences seriously. It proved a costly error.

I agree with Matt’s point that one must choose between options actually on the table, which were indeed a war with Bush as commander-in-chief or no war for years. While I’d liked to have seen some things done differently with regard to the stabilization-transition phase of this war, that would have been the case with a President Gore, a President McCain, or certainly a President Kerry in charge. Most of the day-to-day decisions on the war are made by the bureaucracies and the folks on the ground, which would have been largely the same regardless of the leadership team. Not to mention the terrorists and insurgents. Does anyone really think that Sadr and Co. wouldn’t have emerged if only there were yet another U.N. resolution in place? The troops on the ground would have still been overwhelmingly American after all.

Ultimately, then, “not this war now” is a cop-out. It translates to either “no war, period” or “removing Saddam but without any bad stuff happening.” The former argument is sustainable, although it’s one I disagree with. The latter takes the easy way out, as it attempts to cloak its proponent as being for action but removes any responsibility for the inevitable bad things that happen in war.

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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. McGehee says:

    Just when I think they’ve reached the limit of ideological contortion, they tie themselves in one more Gordian knot.

  2. dsquared says:

    James, you’ve gotta remember that d-squared digest isn’t Crooked Timber; it’s my personal site and half the things on there are jokes. The “Bush is a Moron” cracks were there for precisely that reason; to leaven the hard-nosed analysis and to irritate people who think he isn’t one.

    The underlying point which I am prepared to defend, however, is that this was a war of choice, not a war of necessity. There was no credible security rationale for the war (evidence: none was produced). The deadline was a deadline of our choosing; we could have set a later one if we’d wanted.

    Given that it was a war of choice (and given that people high up in the administration had been thinking about it seriously for years), it damn well ought to have been planned and executed better than it was. I could clearly see the present clusterf’ck coming at the time I wrote the original posts, and so could anyone else with eyes in their head. So my position was clear; I’m in favour of wars of necessity as and when the need arises [1], but only in favour of wars of choice if I think they’re being handled well.

    I massively disagree with your assertion that “most of the decisions are made by the folks on the ground”. Quite simply, the decision about the number of troops to send, isn’t. And from that original sin, much else flows.

    [1] This is retrospective; I in fact wasn’t in favour of Afghanistan at the time but looking back think I probably should have been.

  3. Paul says:

    If you read thru the educated B.S. you see a recurring theme. “Bush is the devil and I’d support the war if a Democrat were running it.”

    When Matt says “the fact that he’d botched everything else he’d ever done” what he means is, “He is a Republican and I’m a partisan hack.”

    Indeed, if Clinton had made these decisions these same people would be telling us it was God’s gift from heaven that Bill was saving us from Saddam.

    To say that France, Germany and Russia would back this decision later is disingenuous folly. The U.N. had 12 years. It is hard to make the case that 6 more would make an appreciable difference. If anything it would make it harder.

    And when would the U.N have truly been motivated? After an event that would make it “too late.” Then these same partisan hacks would be bashing Bush for not “doing more.”


    It’s just more of the same.

  4. dsquared says:

    Indeed, if Clinton had made these decisions these same people would be telling us it was God’s gift from heaven that Bill was saving us from Saddam

    I did not have a blog in those days, but you have my word of honour as a gentleman that I was horrified and violently critical of both the Sudanese and Balkan adventures of Clinton. Also, fairly uniquely in the European left, I am under no illusions about the usefulness, competence or good will of the UN, who have been AFIACS a disaster everywhere they’ve sent a peace-keeping force.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Fair enough on the Bush is a moron business, although your argument still takes a version of that. For months leading up to the war, I thought it was indeed a war of choice and thought it unnecessary. The WMD argument ultimately sold me, especially once it was revealed that the DPRK had nukes and, once possessed, we had no good options left. At that point, sooner rather than later seemed the way to go.

    The only UN peacekeeping ops of value that come to mind are Mozambique in the mid-1990s and the Sinai multi-national force and observers mission that followed Camp David. They’re not totally worthless, but damned close, as a military organization.

  6. Paul says:


    I’ll take you at your word. If I lumped you in the pile of “Bush hating partisan hacks” too quickly, let me apologize…. There just seems to be so damned many of them… ;-\


  7. dsquared says:

    No fair enough Paul; I am a partisan hack, of the Bush hating variety; it’s just that I believe that partisan Bush hatred is not an essential premis of that particular argument.

  8. Jem says:

    It’s disingenuous, I think, to argue that the sanctions would ever have worked. There was too much money being made by the French, the Russians, the Chinese, the UN itself, et al. via the “Oil for Food/Luxury Items/Palaces/Corruption” system to impose any pain on the leadership of Iraq. It was regime change or accept defeat.

    There was no possibility of regime change in Iraq (short of Saddam having a heart attack while with his mistress or other “natural cause/act of God”). Thus, war was the only option to enact the stated position of both the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Having brought in large numbers of troops just to obtain access for Blix and his bunch, US options were to keep them in place indefinitely (not palatable to the Saudis and not practical for the Kuwaitis, and at a cost to our military pretty similar to what we paid for invasion while getting virtually nothing in return), pull the troops out (handing Saddam a victory and likely emboldening him for the future) or going forward with an invasion.