The Shaky Logic of Iraq Revisionism

Prompted by the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq (at least in letter, if not in actuality), many of the hawks who pushed hardest for the 2003 invasion are coming out of the woodwork to argue once again that the war was both successful and necessary. While most hawks have restricted their rhetoric to pious references to the 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 Saddam Hussein from power outweigh the war’s toll of hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and billions of dollars wasted. I didn’t find Frum’s argument terribly convincing — it relies primarily on assuming a series of worst-case scenarios about Saddam’s capabilities and intentions — but the fact that Henninger is also getting into the game may signal the start of a trend. For that reason, it’s worth examining the logic of Henninger’s piece.

Henninger’s basic point (which Frum also makes) is that although we now know that Saddam had no nuclear weapons program, he surely would have gone back to pursuing nukes by now if we hadn’t taken him out. After all, both North Korea and Iran have intensified their nuclear programs since 2003, and Saddam therefore would have felt the need to keep pace.

There are two things to note here. First: traditional just war doctrines argue that a first strike is only justifiable if it is preemptive — that is, aimed at heading off an imminent threat. The Bush Doctrine famously sought to justify preventive as well as preemptive warfare; according to the Bush administration, it did not matter that Saddam posed no imminent threat in 2003, because he was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction (in particular, nuclear weapons) that he might use in the future. He may not have been a threat, in other words, but he was threatening to be a threat. Even putting aside the intense controversy about the legitimacy of preventive war itself, we now know that this line of argument was false: Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, nor was he actively seeking a nuclear weapon.

So Henninger, in his attempt to salvage a justification for war after the collapse of the WMD argument, simply takes the Bush logic one step farther. Sure, Saddam had no nuclear weapons, and sure, there is no evidence that he was seeking them. But how can we know that he wouldn’t do so in the future? He may not have been a threat, and he may not even have been threatening to be a threat — but he was threatening to threaten to be a threat. The tortured language reflects the flimsiness of the underlying argument. The case for war was not terribly strong even on the assumption that Saddam was seeking nukes; it is even weaker when the supposed emergency is that Saddam might decide to seek nukes at some unspecified moment in the future.

The second flaw with Henninger’s logic is in his argument that Saddam would have been compelled to seek nukes to keep up with Iran and North Korea. The problem here is that Henninger simply assumes that the increasingly confrontational stance that Iran and North Korea took in the wake of the Iraq war (and Bush’s January 2002 “axis of evil” speech) reflect what they would have done regardless of American actions.

This is a highly dubious assumption. By lumping Iran and North Korea in with Iraq in the “axis of evil” and by demonstrating that the U.S. was willing to use military force to overthrow such regimes, the Bush administration gave these countries both a motive for adopting a confrontational stance and an incentive for developing nuclear deterrents of their own to head off a potential invasion. While both countries’ nuclear programs predate the Bush Doctrine, it should surprise no one that the invasion of Iraq would cause both to redouble, rather than curtail, these programs.

Similarly, Henninger suggests that rivalry with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have inspired Saddam to greater mischief, but it is far from clear that Ahmadinejad would currently be president at all if it weren’t for the events of Bush’s first term. If the U.S. had not been perceived as so hostile to Iran and to Muslims generally, both Khamenei and the Iranian populace may well have been far less receptive to the appeal of an anti-American demagogue such as Ahmadinejad. In any case, we can see from this how nonsensical it is to treat Iranian and North Korean behavior post-2003 as if it existed in a vacuum that was utterly unaffected by the Iraq war, and to seek to justify the invasion ex post facto by referencing events that may not even have occurred if it hadn’t been for the invasion itself.

This sloppiness is typical of the new Iraq revisionism. The case for war remains as weak as it has been ever since the original justification based on WMD and al-Qaeda ties collapsed, so it is not surprising that advocates of the invasion are forced to resort to such flimsy arguments to defend it.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Counterfactual is the key word — Frum and Henninger are arguing with no real evidence to back them up. Iraq was never a threat to the US, whether nuclear armed or no. The Iraqi threat to Israel is perhaps another matter, but that should never have been our worry. A trillion dollars, 4,000 plus American dead and 30,000 wounded can never be justified by the removal of Saddam.

    On the other hand, Mr. Luban indicates that the U.S. war in Iraq made Iran and North Korea more confrontational than they otherwise would have been. As regards Iran this is quite possibly true (though isn’t Luban also employing the counterfactual here?), but North Korea? The only possible solutions to North Korea are: 1)turning our back or 2)annihilating the regime and armed forces. (Of course, we’ll likely never do either.) North Korea is a true rogue state and nothing George W. Bush did made it behave any worse than it otherwise would have.

    The argument here would have worked better if only Iran were considered. Throwing in North Korea muddies the pool considerably.

  2. Honestly, the surge was a battle for improving a War, not winning it. Our military did everything asked of them and more and frankly deserve better than be spread too thin for far too long without being adequately equipped. Thank God we are getting out, what a waste of our Youth and Treasury set on a bed of lies. According to “W” we already had a Mission Accomplished Ceremony, right? History will credit “W” for deregulation and for our current financial mess, isn’t that enough!

    When you cherry pick the information to go to war, you go to war.

  3. The Thought Police have become an intricate function of the USG INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY. Borrowed from “1984” and the Cheap Trick song “The Dream Police” the Thought Police get inside of my head the Thought Police come to me in my bed…….the Thought Police, Thought Police”. What’s even more insulting is that the Fascist press concocts rational for the existence and necessity of the Thought Police with legal prosecutions and/or invasions based on what the Thought Police think that someone is thinking or may think about……! Refined NAZISM tempered by Stalinism that’s what the USG is become. Good article

  4. China and North Korea have a cozy enough relationship that we’re never going to ‘annihilate’ them, or we’ll face the same ourselves. China wouldn’t even have to launch any missiles, just call in some of the paper they hold on us. And if bozos like the author thought Iraq would be a “cakewalk”, imagine what a thrashing we would take from a healthy, robust nation like Iran. The only recourse we would have would be nuclear, at which point (hopefully) nations of the world would shun us as a pariah state (like they’re starting to Israel).

  5. You state that Iran has been driven to redouble it’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon – but there is no evidence that Iran is making any such efforts.

    This tacit acceptance of false assumptions is a form of propaganda called “framing” and in this case is also a “frame-up”.

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