March 23, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Why We Fought

The History of the Iraq War is Being Twisted

Two years ago this week, the American invasion of Iraq was underway. Why had we gone to war? In the months leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush repeatedly gave his reasons.

Saddam Hussein, he said on Oct. 7, 2002, “has tried to dominate the Middle East, has invaded and brutally occupied a small neighbor, has struck other nations without warning, and holds an unrelenting hostility toward the United States.” 

The President added: “Some al-Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year…” He was talking about the now infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who to this day commands suicide bombers and cuts throats for video releases.

The president had also made the case for taking action before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002. “If we meet our responsibilities,” he said, “the people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world. These nations can show by their example that honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond.”

Similarly, Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and chief architect of the administration's policy, said on Oct. 16, 2002: “Iraq is part of the global war on terrorism because Iraq represents one of the first and best opportunities to begin building what President Bush has referred to as a better world beyond the war on terrorism.

“If Saddam Hussein is a danger and a support to terrorists and an encouragement to terrorist regimes, conversely his demise will open opportunities for governments and institutions to emerge in the Muslim world that are respectful of fundamental human dignity and freedom and that abhor the killing of innocents as an instrument of national policy.”

Isn't it odd that such clear and compelling justifications for the war and where it might lead have been largely forgotten in what passes for debate these days? Instead, the talking point we hear — over and over — is that the casus belli for the invasion was simply and exclusively Saddam's possession of stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That is usually followed by the assertion that since no such caches of WMD have been found, the war was unjustified and, it is customary to add in an outraged tone, based on a bald-faced “lie.”

Which is itself a bald-faced lie – as the quotes above establish, as does the fact, noted by historian Victor Davis Hanson, that in the run-up to the invasion, the U.S. Senate “on its own cited 23 causes of action, well beyond the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and thus established bipartisan agreement on several grounds for removing Saddam.”

But it is true that Saddam's possession of WMD stocks was something every major intelligence agency in the world believed. By contrast, many people – Democrats and Republicans alike — disagreed with Bush when he said he intended to “defend the world from a grave danger.” 

They saw Saddam as Osama bin Laden had been seen in the 1990s: as little more than an irritant, one that could be kept “in a box.” We now know that judgment was wrong. Saddam, by corrupting the UN Oil-for-Food program, was generating billions of dollars and had plans to spend that money fulfilling his imperial ambitions.

There also were those who did not approve when Bush vowed to “free” Iraqis. We now know, however, that Saddam's human rights violations were worse than most people realized. Major media organizations had been reluctant to report aggressively – for fear that, if they did, Saddam would target their employees or close their Baghdad bureaus.

But when Bush said he wanted to “disarm” Saddam — that was hard to quarrel with. In the aftermath of 9/11, the argument might have been made that even without WMD, terrorists and those who support them can do enormous damage. But since, as noted, everyone agreed that Saddam, an established terror master, had the most efficient means to commit mass murders, the need for disarmament was obvious.

The justification for the invasion made at the U.N. also focused attention on WMD – but not quite the way the war's critics would have it. Saddam had violated agreements made in exchange for a ceasefire in the Gulf War of 1991. He had not fulfilled his U.N. mandated obligation to surrender his WMD and to destroy them in a verifiable manner. Such verification – and not playing hide-the-salami with Saddam – was the task assigned the U.N. weapons inspectors. 

As I noted in a column almost exactly two years ago, the war on terrorism and the neo-fascist movements that utilize terrorism was always the “deep reason” for the conflict in Iraq. That was made clear many times by many people. Nevertheless, there are those attempting to distort the still-living past, to reduce the most important and complex foreign policy issue of this generation to an abbreviation: WMD. It's important they not succeed in spinning history. 

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