In the many debates and discussions I have on the subject of Iraq, I'm often reminded by opponents of the war that, while Saddam Hussein was certainly a cruel and malevolent dictator, it was the United States that abetted his most murderous inclinations for the better part of two decades. America's apparent complicity in, for example, the Iran-Iraq War deeply undermined our country's moral authority to depose the Iraqi leader. And, at least to this extent, the U.S. intervention in Iraq was unjust.
Or so the argument goes.
The United States' relationship with Saddam Hussein dates back to the late 1960s, when the CIA aided the most militant wing of the Iraqi Ba'ath party in its effort to depose 'Abd al-Kariim Qaaim, a nationalist ruler whose sympathies for the Iraqi Communist Party were well-documented. Iraq stood as a counterweight to Soviet influence in the Middle East and, later, as a bulwark against Iranian terror. And so the U.S. secretly supported the Iraqi incursion into oil-rich Khuzestan, supplying Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons that he would repeatedly use on Iranian civilians, and that were later used in Halabja to gas Iraqi Kurds. We supported him throughout his murderous rampages against Shi'ite citizens, and in spite of his long history of human rights abuses. We supported him even as he supplied weapons and aid to various terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East and called for the destruction of Israel.
It was not until Iraq's annexation and brutal occupation of Kuwait in 1990 that the United States began, somewhat half-heartedly, to atone for its past sins. Alleging that the Kuwaiti government was slant drilling into Iraqi oil wells, Saddam Hussein staged a brutal military intervention and established provincial ownership over a country that he had for years sought to control. This was an act of aggression virtually unprecedented since the Nazi intervention and annexation of the Sudetenland, and it threatened the security of both the Arab states and the global community. (The only other modern case that may be considered comparable was the Indonesian annexation of East Timor, though some may argue that the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights was a de facto annexation.) With its own interests and the interests of its Kuwaiti allies at stake, the United States led the effort under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to combat Iraqi hostility in the Persian Gulf.
Operation Desert Storm marked the first time that the United Nations Security Council ever authorized the use of military force to repel an invading army. More than 30 member-states contributed forces to the effort, which lasted less than 100 hours. And in the aftermath of this swift and decisive victory, the Bush Administration called upon the oppressed Shi'ite majority to rise up against Saddam Hussein and reclaim the country. Though many in the Shia did take up arms against the Ba'ath regime, the United States failed to provide any of its promised support, and the rebellion was crushed by the Republican Guard with the all-too-familiar use of chemical weapons.
Once again, the American government had betrayed the Iraqi people, and allowed a brutal dictator to remain in power.
Saddam Hussein's punishment for twice invading and occupying an innocent neighbor, employing chemical weapons against his own people, sponsoring terrorism abroad, and later attempting assassinate a former U.S. president was little more than a slap on the wrist. He was called upon, under threat of force, to verifiably dismantle his weapons programs and allow a United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) into the country.
He did not, of course, do either of these things. And as late as 1996, UNSCOM officials were still destroying facilities like al-Hakam--a "dual-use" chemical plant that violated both the letter and the spirit of the UN resolutions--and being denied access into various parts of the country.
Rather than remove Saddam from power, the United States chose to lobby the United Nations for additional sanctions, which would ultimately lead to the deaths of, by some estimates, more than one million Iraqi civilians (many of them children who died of malnutrition). In 1995, a well-intentioned Clinton administration pushed hard for the United Nations-administered Oil for Food Program, which we have now come to learn was one of the most corrupt programs in UN history, with one of the most corrupt administrators, Benon Sevan, who ultimately fled to Cyprus to avoid prosecution. The program not only failed to feed Iraqi citizens, it also put millions (perhaps billions) of dollars back into the hands of Saddam Hussein.
In spite the UN's efforts--or perhaps because of them--President Clinton signed the Iraqi Liberation Act into law in 1998, altering the official US policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change. Later that year, Clinton also ordered the bombing of suspected chemical weapons sites in Iraq, after Saddam Hussein again expelled UN inspectors from the country.
This was the situation in Iraq in early 2001. Though many supported lifting the sanctions against Iraq, all indications at the time--and, indeed, all post-war assessments--suggested that this would likely allow Saddam Hussein the freedom to reconstitute his weapons programs. To keep the sanction in place, however, would mean allowing Iraqis to starve.
There were no easy answers, and many have argued convincingly in the aftermath of the Iraq War that a full-scale invasion and occupation was perhaps the worst course to pursue.
That may or may not be true. But how, after all of this, do we still have those who argue that we owed the Iraqi people nothing? How can they suggest with such smug indignation it is not our place to referee their civil war? And how can they claim that our past failings only demand that we abandon the Iraqi people now, at this most difficult moment in their history?
It is easy to oppose the Iraq War on the more practical grounds that it distracted from our efforts in Afghanistan. And it is important to note the Bush administration's incompetent mismanagement and repeated tactical failures that led to such chaos. While it may have been difficult for the military to anticipate the bombing of the Golden Mosque (al-Askari) in Samarra, which triggered the cycle of violence in 2005, the administration could certainly have taken steps to mitigate sectarian tensions and provide more security.
Indeed, many of the criticisms against the administration are well founded. But they simply have nothing to do with our obligations to the Iraqi people.
We need to stop pretending that they do.
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