June 1, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

A Justifiable, Necessary and Winnable War

Anti-war activists have been feeling their oats. Pro-liberation advocates have been feeling woozy. So let's get back to basics, and ask three simple questions, to remind ourselves how we got here – and to consider where we need to go.

Was the war justified? There can be no doubt about it. Before the war, the news media failed to reveal the extent of Saddam Hussein's brutality. Too many journalists cut a shameful deal with the dictator: To keep their Baghdad bureaus open and unmolested, they refrained from serious attempts to report Saddam's crimes. 

Since the liberation of Iraq the broadcast media have …well, they've made no great effort to correct the record. Nevertheless, there has been enough solid print reporting   for diligent readers to know that Saddam executed several hundred thousand Iraqis and buried their bodies in mass graves. We know that Saddam waged a genocidal war against the Kurds and butchered the Marsh Arabs, intentionally wrecking their fragile environment in the process.

There are videotapes of many of Saddam's vile misdeeds. He ordered them either for personal amusement or as a management tool — to make sure the work was getting done. These tapes show Saddam's thugs hacking fingers off those suspected of disloyalty; pulling out the tongues of those who dissented; cutting off the heads of those who offended the dictator. The blood splatters, the victims scream, Saddam's killers sing Saddam's praises.

It's puzzling that the same media outlets that air – over and over — tapes of Americans abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib do not broadcast these earlier tapes. One possible explanation: Tapes of American abusers are prurient – the women's underwear, the dog leashes, the nudes-on-nudes. By contrast, the Saddam tapes are gruesome in a banal way.

But such reasoning is insufficient when you watch veteran film-maker Don North's restrained documentary entitled, “Remembering Saddam,” the story of nine innocent businessmen who had their right hands amputated at Abu Ghraib on Saddam's orders. North's film has been written about by the Wall Street Journal, and North has been interviewed on C-SPAN, but not one network — not CBS, NBC, ABC or PBS — has yet aired his truthful, revealing tale of real people who suffered under a brutal dictator, who suffer still, and who are grateful to Americans for freeing them from Saddam's clutches. 

Was this war necessary? It is tempting to believe that – had we only left Saddam alone — he would have confined his atrocities to Iraqis and their neighbors, that he would have spared Americans. Overwhelming evidence contradicts that view. 

From the heroic statues he dedicated to himself, it was obvious that Saddam dreamed of becoming a Middle Eastern emperor. The Gulf War forced Saddam to defer that dream, to disgorge Kuwait, to dismantle his nuclear weapons program – a program that in 1991 was found to be much further along than intelligence analysts had estimated.

Saddam did not accept defeat — he swore revenge and vowed to rise again.

In 1993, he attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait. 

In 1995, his son-in-law, Kamel Hussein, defected and revealed that he had secretly resumed his research on biological Weapons of Mass Destruction. (For that, Kamel paid with his life a year later.)

In 1998, Saddam forced UN weapons inspectors to leave Iraq, having persistently refused to account for a list of prohibited WMD, including anthrax and sarin – the latter a deadly nerve gas, a dose of which was recently discovered in a roadside bomb in Baghdad. To this day, we don't know what happened to those WMD – which is not the same as saying Saddam didn't have them.

In a May 2001 interview with PBS, Sabah Khadada, an Iraqi military officer who had been assigned to the Salman Pak terrorist training camp south of Baghdad, said that Saddam had personally told him and his colleagues: “We have to take revenge from America. Our duty is to attack and hit American targets. …That's how Saddam was able to attract those [foreign] Arabs and Muslims who came to train, because that's exactly what they want to do.”

Among those foreign terrorists was Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, an Iraq-based associate of Osama bin Laden's who in 2002 organized the assassination of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman, Jordan (and a few weeks ago severed the head of American Nick Berg).

Little by little, new evidence has been coming to light of an extensive web of Saddam-bin Laden ties. The best effort to untangle that web is Stephen F. Hayes' new book: “The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America.”

This war was necessary — Saddam was not a hornet that would have stayed in his nest but for President Bush shaking it.

Is this war winnable? Militarily, the US is doing better than many realize. Difficult, dangerous and dirty as a conflict with combatants disguised as civilians is, American forces are learning how to win it. 

Liberating Iraq was easier than most experts expected. Occupying Iraq has been harder and more deadly than most anticipated. The third phase, just beginning, is unlikely to be a cakewalk. 

Zarkawi, Saddam loyalists and the agents of the Iranian mullahs believe that if they can just they spill enough blood, Americans will lose their will to fight, and Iraqis will lose their dream of freedom.

Surely, we've come too far to prove them right.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.