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.

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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. In response to Jim Roth’s comment: I merely claimed that Iran has redoubled its nuclear program, not necessarily its nuclear WEAPONS program. Mr. Roth is correct that it has not been proven that Iran is seeking an actual warhead, as opposed to what is frequently (if imprecisely) referred to as “breakout capacity”. (See Joshua Pollock of Arms Control Wonk for more on this terminology: That said, it would hardly be surprising if Iran were to seek a nuclear weapon — as I noted, the frequent American threats of regime change against Tehran give them a big incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent.

  2. I love Montana’s comment and agree with it 100%.

    As to “annihilating” the North Korean regime and armed forces, I made a point of saying we would never do it. But if we did, the Chinese would “hold their breath and make no comment” (or at least no comment beyond denouncing US “imperialism” — and who cares what they have to say about that?

  3. Ah, Mr. Henninger…
    I sent an email to him, to the address provided in the WSJ, after his article “Beating up on Israel”, appearing June 3rd (after the flotilla). Suffice it to say that I received no response. To simplify, he’s a neocon (or has adopted the neocon stance in order to keep his status and career at the WSJ, who knows? Poor guy).

    “The tortured language reflects the flimsiness of the underlying argument.”
    – This is the best way to put it. EXACTLY.

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