Iraq: should we have invaded?

In a recent posting, I promised to address some of the many difficult questions posed by the situation in Iraq – and I was encouraged to do so by comments from Paul Hullock and Richard Leyton.
So let me start with the most fundamental question of all: should we have invaded?
The strongest objection to the invasion of Iraq is that it is a sovereign nation and no one has a right to intervene in the affairs of another nation, however objectionable the behaviour of the leadership of that nation.

I fundamentally reject this argument. If you become aware that a neighbour is assaulting his wife or abusing his child, you do not ignore this because what happens in a man’s home is his business alone. You recognise that there is a breach of the law and you call the police. Now we have international law – and various conventions – but we do not have an international police force. This is the heart of the problem of enforcing international standards throughout our variegated world.
The nearest we have to an international body for the setting and enforcement of political standards is the United Nations and I am a strong supporter of the UN concept. My reluctant support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was fundamentally about the credibility of the UN.
I did not know whether Saddam Hussain possessed weapons of mass destruction, although I thought then that the available evidence suggested he did and that his behaviour in resisting the work of the UN weapons inspectors – even when US forces were gathering to launch an assault – strongly suggested that he did. To this day, I cannot understand why, when he saw that the Americans would invade and his regime would be toppled, he did not simply give full freedom to the UN weapons inspectors and thereby remove any political legitimacy for invasion.
What I did know was that Iraq had repeatedly and seriously breached UN resolutions and I think that this fact is accepted by both opponents and supports of the war. In these circumstances, the UN had to do something credible to maintain its authority and legitimacy. It had already tried sanctions, but these did not work and, in so far as they had an effect, the suffering was borne by ordinary Iraqi men, women and children.
This therefore raised the issue of military force and here we run into some fundamental weaknesses of the UN. First, it does not have standing military assets of its own. It is bound to depend on the military resources of its member states. Inevitably they are reluctant to approve military intervention and even more reluctant to allocate meaningful military forces of their own. Furthermore the decision-making structures of the UN make it very difficult and very slow to agree such interventions.
So the first set of lessons of the Iraq war revolve around the need for major reform of the UN:

  • Germany, Japan and India should become permanent members of the Security Council
  • the veto power of permanent members needs to be more limited
  • there needs to be mechanisms for taking quicker decisions at times of international crisis
  • there needs to be means of putting together UN-badged military forces more quickly
  • military inventions by the UN need to be shared more, involving much more Germany, Japan, India and China as nations with considerable resources who currently contribute little to such UN actions

Returning to the situation in 1993, I would have wanted UN approval for US/UK intervention in Iraq, but France and Russia had major oil interests in Iraq and had their own reasons for not wanting the overthrow of Saddam Hussain and many other countries feared that a more interventionist role by the UN could one day lead to their behaviour being challenged.
In the circumstances, I reluctantly accepted that the US and the UK would have to act without UN endorsement. Acting in such a manner without UN support could only be morally justified by special circumstances, but I believed that these circumstances were present because I believed that Saddam Hussain had WMD and the clear evidence of his gassing of the Kurds, his repression of the marsh people, his war with Iran and his invasion of Kuwait was that he was willing to use whatever military assets he had when he judged that the time was right.
I did not see the need to wait until he actually used such weapons, any more than, if in 1939 Britain and France had felt strong enough to invade Nazi Germany, I would have felt compelled to wait until Germany invaded France in 1940. The lesson of history is that the sooner one faces up to totalitarian regimes, the easier it is to resist them and the stronger the signal it sends to other despots.
Of course, it looks now as if Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (unless they were somehow spirited out of the country before the invasion) and this raises a second set of lessons:

  • the intelligence communities of the US and the UK need to reassess fundamentally their sources and their evaluation of information on the military threat posed by so-called rogue states
  • the political establishments of the US and the UK need to restructure their cabinet systems so that there is more collegiate decision-making and more open debate (so that the likes of Colin Powell in the USA and Robin Cook in Britain could have had their reservations weighed more fairly and fully)
  • the legislatures and the media in democratic nations need to be more vigorous in challenging the case for military action where the evidence is lacking or weak

Finally in this section, I need to say something about the United States. A lot of the opposition to the invasion of Iraq – especially on the Left – has betrayed a blatant anti-Americanism which, in the case of other national groups, we might call racism. In considering a fairer and more peaceful international framework, is America part of the solution or part of the problem? In truth, it is both.
The United States has the largest air force on earth, the largest navy on earth and the second largest army on earth (the Chinese have twice as many soldiers) as well as the most modern and effective military technology; it is the richest nation and has the strongest economy on the globe; it is – for all its many serious flaws – a vibrant democracy with a remarkably free media. We need the US and its forces to help us all create a better world.
It is true that historically many US military interventions have been unwanted and unwarranted. On the other hand, the Allies would not have won either of the two World Wars without the Americans and in both cases the USA was very reluctant to enter the war. The nations of Central & Eastern Europe would not be free today without the sustained American opposition to Soviet imperialism. In short, we all need America and should encourage it to use its strength more wisely and not to withdraw into the isolationism of the 1930s.
So, when all is said an done, I am making a case for more, not less, interventions in the affairs of states who fundamentally breach international standards. We were right to have intervened in Kosovo and to have invaded Afghanistan and we should have intervened in Rwanda and Darfur. We need a more multi-national and more sophisticated use of both soft and hard power in the conduct of international affairs.
I’ll address later some of the other questions posed by Iraq. In the meantime, I would appreciate your comments.

One Comment

  • Eric Lee

    Very well put and I agree with nearly every word. (And there goes your reputation!)
    My only amendment would be to say that in addition to the countries you name, Africa and Latin America deserve permanent representation on the Security Council as well, with the best contenders for those roles being Brazil and South Africa — two countries which have both demonstrated vibrant democracies and have repudiated nuclear weapons.
    I would also add that Saddam not only fought wars against Kuwait and Iran, while threatening Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but also launched an unprovoked missile blitz lasting several weeks against Israel in 1991. At the time, Saddam did have chemical and biological weapons, and could easily have killed far more Israelis than he actually did. Israel did not respond to the Iraqi provocation (in order to placate the Coalition), but I’m sure friends of Israel around the world — as well as democrats everywhere — rejoiced at the fall of the Saddam regime.