The Iraq War Revisited: Could It Ever Be Justified?

The Bush administration lied about key evidence pertaining to Iraq’s WMD program and the Hussein government’s links to Al Qaeda. It exaggerated the dangers and strength of both. And it played on people’s fears as a means of justifying war and regime change.

As the vast amount of evidence points, all of these faults are more than clear, as Rachel Maddow revisited in her recent special “Hubris: Selling the Iraq War.” But as I watched this special and was reminded of the various lies and tragic blunders that surrounded the Iraq War, I was left with an array of different questions.

But before I delve into those questions let me give some context. In college, through the influence of my professors, I was adamantly opposed to the Iraq War. I remained convinced that the war was orchestrated by an evil cabal of oil-hungry neo-imperialists, hellbent on extending the American empire at all costs. My views on the Iraq War were the standard super lefty automaton’s clichés.

This ossified worldview was drastically challenged, however, during my time interning for the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq’s office in Washington, DC. During this time I heard firsthand about both the absolute horrors of the Hussein regime and the undeniable positive outcomes that its removal produced. My views on Iraq and the post-Hussein era were also expanded after talking with my cousin, a staunch right-wing Army infantry grunt with four tours throughout Iraq, and an idealistic, left-winger Anbar surge veteran whom I befriended during grad school. Through this internship I also met and attended events involving various members of the neoconservative circle, such as Paul Wolfowtiz and Richard Perle.

This is not all to say that in hindsight I think the Iraq War was a good idea or justified or resulted in an overall net positive outcome. Rather, I came to learn that the situation was much more complex than simply thinking “Iraq War bad” or that “it’s a war for oil.”

Through these aforementioned experiences I saw Kurds from Kirkuk and Baghdad who had a world of opportunity opened up to them after living in constant fear and oppression. At the same time I saw Arabs and Kurds who were unable to return home for fear of death at the hands of sectarian barbarians. I saw Iraqis of a variety of ethnic and religious identities exercise and experiment in democracy, free enterprise, and liberty. Yet I also saw, during an Iraq-related investment event, a middle-aged Sunni Arab man beg my Kurdish coworker to find a way to get him out of his war-torn country for the peace and stability of the United States. As a liberal I felt equally proud of the socialist and secular authorities who were empowered after the invasion (such as Jalal Talabani) and repulsed by the illiberal sectarian demagogues who were elevated to prominence (such as Muqtada al-Sadr).

After interacting with and listening to some of the war’s key supporters, I saw them less as necessarily evil men hellbent on controlling oil and enacting imperialist fantasies and rather misguided, arrogant men blinded by ideology and false assumptions about the Middle East and human nature. That is not to say there did not exist those in the oil and defense industries who supported the war for their own personal possible gains. But not all of the war’s proponents and prime mover could be painted with this broad brush.

There are positive and negative outcomes to every conflict. And I still believe that the negatives of the Iraq War still outweigh the positives. But the positives cannot be ignored. And I still find it difficult to be completely dismissive of the Iraq War around my Kurdish friends who often regal me with the horrors of living under a totalitarian regime.

But this brings me to my main question after viewing Maddow’s Iraq War special—if the war was trumpeted as a purely humanitarian endeavor under more competent architects, would more on the left be  morally obligated to support it?

When I see leftist support for military action in Libya, Darfur, Syria, the Balkans, Rwanda, or Mali (to name a few) I can’t help but ask this question. The Hussein regime was one of the most brutal of this century—killing hundreds of thousands, perfecting a torture-ready secret police force, gassing civilians, “disappearing” countless innocent Iraqis, and leaving immeasurable psychological scars that will last for generations.

If not in 2003, would a liberal polity be morally inclined to act militarily against the Hussein regime in 1988 when Saddam gassed and massacred the Kurds. Or how about in 1991 when he brutally put down the post-Persian Gulf War Shia uprising in the south?

And do the humanitarian arguments for those actions outweigh the probable chaos that would ensue — even under a more competent administration that would, for example, not disband the Iraqi Army post-invasion — in such a multiethnic, multireligious state?

As the recent mulling among the left over intervention in the Syrian civil war demonstrate, the answer to these questions  may not be so simple as we may think.


  1. Charles Fisher says

    Excellent article.

    You know, I have been feeing much the same way recently, that, in hindsight, my opinion about the Iraq War has shifted a lot. Not to assume that your’s has, but I can at least identify with your reconsideration of the ethical and moral implications of the Iraq War. At the beginning of the Iraq War, I was certainly in the same camp that you described yourself as being in, and it’s refreshing and reassuring to hear someone from my own generation is going through a similar type of “revisitation” and questioning their old axioms, and pondering what those implications for foreign policy could then mean.

    I think I would do you a disservice if I didn’t mention it, and come to think of it, you probably are already acquainted with it, so Ill try not to make an assumption here, but, there is a very honest and very well thought out debate (absolutely the most coherent debate I have seen or heard on the subject) between Scott Ritter and Christopher Hitchens about the Iraq War. You can find an audio recording of it on YouTube by typing in that exact title, and it is very worthwhile, and I think you would find much value in it. Hitchens frames the debate much differently than the typical NeoCon argument’s for the invasion in 2002/2003 that we heard, and it will explain Hitchens sense of moral justification for the invasion.

    Anyways, I really enjoy your writings, and I hope you continue to share your depth of knowledge on U.S. foreign policy here.

    • Thanks.

      I’m actually a big Hitchens fan. Not that I agree with everything he said. But I respected his commitment to his views, his thinking outside the ideological box, and his ability to make strong arguments for his positions. Plus he was funny. I think out of anyone he made the best case for the Iraq War, and from a lefty humanitarian perspective.

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