Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think it’s about time that we take an honest, dispassionate look back at the War in Iraq. Few political subjects incite the kind of vitriolic rage that the Iraq war did during President George W. Bush’s (R) presidency, and many of the popular ‘facts’ about the war that still float around in the public consciousness are not even remotely true. I am hopeful that now, with nearly nine years separating us from the beginning of the war (and nearly three separating us from Bush’s last day in office), we can begin to divest ourselves of these myths and evaluate the War in Iraq in the context of the facts.
Rational people can still look back on the Iraq War and disagree (hopefully with some civility) about whether it was justified or right. This piece is not meant to change your mind unless your opinion happens to be rooted in one or more of the following falsehoods. It is, instead, meant to help you set aside the political catch-phrases and slanders and come instead to a well-reasoned conclusion, and maybe understand why others have come to theirs.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reiterate that I supported the Iraq war at its inception, and I have had no reason to renounce this position (although I would certainly be willing to if circumstances demanded it). I supported it for a long list of reasons including the reported WMD programs, Saddam Hussein’s brutal oppression of his own people, Iraq’s flaunting of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Hussein’s history of belligerence, and more. Even if you take WMD’s out of the equation (which you really can’t do anyway, for reasons I’ll get into below), the rest of my reasons stand un-assailed even with 20/20 hindsight. Even judging the war by the four criteria of the Catholic Just War Doctrine, which I didn’t do at the time (since I wasn’t Catholic then), I still believe the war was morally and legally justified—although, admittedly, as many noteworthy theologians disagree as agree with this analysis.
None of this means that I agree with every war policy or practice along the way, or that I endorse every element of the war’s execution, or that I ‘like’ war. I despise war as much as anybody else, but I also recognize that it is sometimes an unfortunate necessity when dealing with belligerent dictators who are unwilling to engage in honest, meaningful diplomacy. I have not hesitated to deviate from the positions of other supporters of the war when they have been wrong. I condemned the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib as loudly as anybody on the anti-war left, and even went as far as to call for charging the perpetrators with treason—one of the highest crimes under the U.S. legal system. I broke with many of my conservative brethren in supporting President Barack Obama’s (D) withdrawal plans, as I recognize that at some point the Iraqi people have to stand on their own. I have also condemned the use of ‘waterboarding’ torture on captured enemy combatants. As early as April 2004 I was writing biting critiques of some of Bush’s war policies, and his manner of communicating them.
So, in other words, please don’t accuse me of being a right-wing Republican ideologue. You know me better than that. I am interested in seeking out and sharing the truth. With that in mind, and without further ado, here are ten stubborn, pernicious myths about the Iraq War and the truth that lies behind them. . . .
Myth #1: Guantanamo Prisoners Were Illegally Imprisoned/Tried
Critics often claim that the U.S. government has violated the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention, which deals with the treatment of prisoners of war, or that we have denied the prisoners at the Guantanamo detention facility their Constitutional right to access our civilian court system. Neither of these claims has any basis in fact.
The Third Geneva Convention, Part 1, Article 4 (PDF link) very specifically defines who is a prisoner of war, and the people we have imprisoned in Cuba simply don’t meet the definition. Guantanamo Bay is where we have sent al-Qaeda terrorists, Islamic ‘freedom fighters,’ and other people who don’t belong to any formal military force. The Conventions, however, clearly define prisoners of war as members of the armed forces and militiamen wearing identifiable insignia and carrying arms openly. There is a broader allowance for people who spontaneously take up arms to fight off an invading force and haven’t had time to make uniforms or insignia, but only if they “carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.”
Even by the broadest possible definition of ‘prisoner of war’ spelled out in the Conventions, setting roadside bombs and blowing up churches doesn’t constitute respect for the ‘laws and customs of war.’ We can of course disagree with the treatment of the prisoners (as I do, with regard to waterboarding), but the Geneva Conventions do not apply, and our practices are not in violation of any recognized international law.
These prisoners also have no right to access our civilian court systems. They committed their crimes outside of U.S. civilian court jurisdiction, which only applies in U.S. territories. Even if they had been operating in the U.S., our legal system traditionally deals with people who commit acts of war against the United States by trying them in a military tribunal system like the one we established at Guantanamo. In the absence of any law changing this legal precedent, this remains the proper, legal way of handling enemy combatants—as President Barack Obama (D) learned when his efforts to move them into the civilian system were stymied.
These kinds of tribunals are nothing new; they are how we have dealt with enemy combatants in every conflict we’ve ever engaged in. In one notable example during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) ordered eight Germans captured in the United States to be tried in a military tribunal for planning war crimes and sabotage. They were convicted, and the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld Roosevelt’s authority to have them tried in a military tribunal instead of the civilian court system (Ex parte Quirin, 317 US 1 (1942)).
Myth #2: The War Was ‘Endless’
Properly speaking, the War in Iraq ended a long time ago. The invasion began March 20, 2003, and President George W. Bush (R) announced the end of all major combat operations less than two months later on May 2. By comparison, our major combat operations in the Persian Gulf War went on for nearly seven months (August 2, 1990-February 28, 1991). Our major combat operations in Korea went on for just over three years (1950-1953). Our major combat operations in Vietnam lasted a bit less than eight years (1965-1973). Our major combat operations in World War II lasted about three years (1942-1945).
Since May 2, 2003, we have been in the midst of a military occupation, and soon even that will be largely over. This is not just a matter of semantics. An occupation has a very different character, in activity and rate of casualties, than a war. It is not without risk, and our brave soldiers are still falling victim to insurgent attacks, but the fact that we call them insurgent attacks rather than battles is because we are in an occupation not a war. To determine whether the Iraq war is ‘endless,’ we should compare it to past conflicts’ combined length of the war itself, its subsequent occupation, and our ongoing military presence afterwards.
Assuming that President Barack Obama (D) has the vast majority of troops home from Iraq before March 2012, we have a comparison baseline of nine years. We can’t compare with the Persian Gulf War or Vietnam War since there was no military occupation at all in either case (although, even with the missing Vietnam occupation, Iraq still only comes in one year longer than our involvement there). Beyond our three-year war in Korea, we have maintained a full, battle-capable military force there since the armistice was signed in 1953. We still have 28,500 troops in Korea today, ready to defend the South against an invasion from the North. So, our comparison point in 2012 will be sixty-two years (and counting) to Iraq’s nine. World War II poses a similar problem, as we still maintain our military presence in both Germany (about 54,000 troops) and Japan (about 33,000 troops). Our comparison point for WWII in 2012 will be seventy years (and counting) to Iraq’s nine.
You might protest that our military forces in Germany, Japan, and Korea aren’t suffering from insurgent attacks, nor are the countries in question formally ‘occupied’ by the U.S. military. This is true today, but it wasn’t always so.
Let’s run through the numbers once more, comparing the length of time from the beginning of military action to either the last U.S. military death due to insurgency or enemy attack, or the end of the formal occupation. Two U.S. soldiers were killed by North Korean troops along the armistice line in the ‘Axe Murder Incident‘ on August 18, 1976, so Korea still comes in at twenty-six years to Iraq’s nine. No U.S. soldiers were verified killed by the German post-war insurgency, but the formal occupation continued until 1949, so the ever-efficient Germans come in at seven years to Iraq’s nine. Japan also had an ineffective or non-existent insurgency after WWII, but the Allied occupation of Japan continued until 1951, so Japan comes in tied with Iraq at nine years.
Even by this artificially adjusted measure, the length of time we’ve been in Iraq is stunningly average for a major U.S. military engagement.
Myth #3: The War Was Unilateral
There are two small nuggets of truth in the claim that the War in Iraq was a unilateral American action. First, the U.S. government petitioned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to either take action itself to enforce the many violated UNSC resolutions or authorize a ‘coalition of the willing’ to take action on its behalf. This effort was vetoed by China and Russia, who each enjoy unlimited veto power in the UNSC. As such, the war did not enjoy any formal U.N. endorsement. Second, the military force that ended up going into Iraq was dominated by the U.S. military. At its onset, our soldiers made up about seventy-six percent of the total invasion force.
But the fact that the invading armies were predominantly American, and didn’t enjoy U.N. authorization, doesn’t make the action unilateral. A large coalition of nations joined us in executing the War in Iraq. The initial invasion force was made up of troops from the U.S., United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Poland, Portugal, and Denmark—plus additional Iraqi troops from the Kurdish Militia and over six hundred from the Iraqi National Congress opposition group. Later, troops joined in the effort as part of the Multi-National Force – Iraq from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Philippines, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Thailand, Tonga, and Ukraine.
Most ‘unilateral’ war efforts don’t enjoy the active support of forty independent countries.
Beyond these, there were many other countries whose leaders supported the war effort but, for various religious and cultural reasons, were unable to lend their formal support. Most of Iraq’s neighbors, excluding Iran and Syria, tacitly supported the invasion. This is evidenced by their lack of formal objection to the war (which, oddly, came mostly from France, Germany, Russia, and China), their willingness to grant the coalition overflight rights, and other non-combat support activities—overtures that they easily could have refused if they had, in fact, opposed the effort.
Myth #4: There Were No WMD’s or Illegal Weapons
There’s a nugget of truth in this one too; Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs were obviously not as broad or advanced as we had all been lead to believe. This is indisputable, and it was an inexcusable failure of many of the world’s intelligence services (including our own).
But whenever somebody asks me the rhetorical question, “Where are the WMD’s?” I actually have an answer for them: there were many hundreds of them scattered around Iraq in weapons bunkers. Coalition forces found and recovered over 500 chemical munitions (PDF link) containing mustard gas and/or Sarin nerve agents in the invasion and its aftermath, though these discoveries got suspiciously little media attention. The now-democratic Iraqi government declared an additional two bunkers full of chemical weapons and precursors, as well as five inactive chemical weapon production facilities, when it became a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2009. At least one SCUD missile, prohibited to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, was fired at our troops in the 2003 invasion, and other SCUDs and rockets have been found in-country.
All of these weapons were produced before the Persian Gulf War, and it appears that Iraq’s WMD programs were indeed shut-down as required by international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, Saddam Hussein believed that it would be strategically advantageous to maintain the appearance of an ongoing weapons program (evidenced by countless government documents confiscated by the coalition and his behavior during the time between the wars). It is still unclear why he thought this was a good idea, and why so many of the world’s intelligence services fell for it.
Having said that, Iraq was required to declare and destroy the 500+ leftover weapons they still had from before the Gulf War, was required to declare and destroy its SCUD missiles, and was required to allow weapons inspectors full access to their remaining chemical weapons facilities and stockpiles. Hussein’s government did none of this. While the severity of their violations was far less than believed, they were still violations, and they were still serious, and they still warranted enforcement action.
The bigger story than the remaining stockpiles of hundreds of chemical weapons was that Hussein intentionally maintained his weapons programs in a state of readiness. They were shut down, yes, but his intent (backed up, again, by countless government documents recovered in the aftermath of the invasion) was to restart them as soon as the sanctions and required weapons inspections were finished. Our intelligence was wrong about the state of Hussein’s WMD programs, but it was not wrong at all about his obstinate desire to make chemical, biological, and (eventually) nuclear weapons.
So the truth is that Hussein did have WMD’s, we found hundreds of them after the invasion (though not nearly as many as expected), and he did fully intend to make more when political conditions allowed for it.
Myth #5: A War for Oil
Okay, imagine that you’re the President of the United States, you want Iraq’s oil, and you’ll stop at nothing to get it. This is how President George W. Bush (R) has been caricatured, but very few of the accusers seem to have actually considered whether the observable facts about the War in Iraq match with this premise.
If I wanted Iraq’s oil and was willing to stop at nothing to get it, my invasion would focus solely on getting the oil fields. I wouldn’t bother sacrificing any troops for Baghdad or any of the major cities, except as far as to destroy military installations and equipment (which were already decimated after the Gulf War) and seize the oil industry infrastructure. Hussein himself would have the opportunity to fall in-line behind me or be deposed. There would be no need to automatically focus on ‘regime change’ if the oil was all I was after . . . after all, Hussein could have been valuable in maintaining his brutal order at the oil fields.
If Hussein cooperated, and could ensure the cooperation of his people, I’d immediately contract the operation of the oil fields to U.S. firms, leave the Iraqi staff in place as brute labor, and export Iraqi oil to the U.S. at a discount without regard for the fixed-prices of the OPEC cartel. If Hussein wouldn’t or couldn’t cooperate, I’d throw out the Iraqi staff and bring in U.S. companies to run and staff the oil fields under military protection. This would take longer, but would be easier than trying to gain the trust of the locals. Following the initial invasion, all troop deployments would’ve been oriented toward protecting the oil fields and oil infrastructure. The sectarian violence would be left to fester on its own. The Iraqi people would be left to rebuild their civil infrastructure and governments on their own. These things would be of little concern to an oil-obsessed President.
Compare that to what really happened. Coalition forces did secure the oil fields immediately following the invasion, but only because of Hussein’s history of burning them as he ceded territory in the Persian Gulf War. As soon as possible, we returned the fields to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, which still runs them today with only very minimal U.S. involvement. Iraqi oil exports, even when Iraq had no government of its own besides the U.S. occupation authorities, followed OPEC supply and price guidelines and were sold through the same OPEC cartel channels they had always been.
Our government passed up every opportunity it had to benefit from the invasion by artificially manipulating oil prices, by turning the fields over to U.S. companies, etc. Some Republicans floated the idea of using Iraqi oil revenues to cover the costs of the invasion, and even this very limited (and arguably justified) reimbursement was shot-down by the Bush administration and never happened. In the end, we have received basically nothing from the Iraqi oil industry.
With this in mind, there is no indication that oil was the motivating factor in the Iraq war. The real-world execution of the war simply doesn’t support the premise. The evidence would indicate that oil was, if anything, a relatively minor concern to the administration in the execution of the Iraq invasion, ranking far below ‘regime change’ and securing the weapons facilities we believed existed.
Myth #6: No Justification for Military Force
Manifesting itself in several different ways, you’ll hear people derisively refer to the Iraq war as an ‘illegal war’ for which there was no reasonable justification. Some believe that war is never justified, and by that standard this myth might be considered true. But in the real world, the use of military force is sometimes an unfortunate necessity.
So let us consider the situation as it stood before the war. United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1441 was passed unanimously in November 2002, giving Iraq a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” under previous UNSC resolutions 660, 661, 678, 686, 687, 688, 707, 715, 986, and 1284. By failing to immediately comply with resolution 1441 and all previous resolutions, Iraq was in direct violation of international law.
Under the United Nations Charter, UNSC resolutions are legally binding on all nations, and nations that choose not to comply can and should be brought into compliance with military force if it becomes necessary. Although the UNSC never explicitly authorized force in this case, there is no question that Iraq’s actions warranted it under the U.N.’s own charter and guidelines. If the UNSC will not enforce its resolutions with force, then the UNSC might as well just pack up and go home as an ineffective, useless body of international law. Without the intent and capability to enforce its decrees, the U.N. cannot be the guarantor of world peace it is supposed to be.
To those who claim that Iraq could have been brought into compliance through diplomacy, I would point out that Iraq had failed to comply over twelve years, a constant stream of diplomatic efforts from the world community, and the long list of UNSC resolutions listed above. What would more diplomacy have accomplished?
It has also been claimed that military force can only be used in cases where there is an imminent threat, and Iraq did not constitute an imminent threat. First, we must remember that our intelligence services—along with most others around the world—believed that Iraq’s weapons programs were far more advanced than they really were. Saddam Hussein had gone to great lengths to keep up this illusion. We cannot judge decisions by what we know now; we can only judge them by what was known at the time they were made. At the time, Iraq looked like a much greater threat than it actually was. Second, this ‘wait for an imminent threat’ approach has been repeatedly discredited by the course of history. If the world had destroyed Adolf Hitler before he became an ‘imminent threat’ by invading Poland we very likely would have avoided one of the deadliest, most destructive conflicts in world history. It is almost always less expensive, in lives and property alike, to destroy totalitarian regimes before they become an imminent threat.
And finally, let’s not forget that the proposal to use military force in Iraq was reviewed independently by the U.S. Congress and was approved by a broad bipartisan majority. The ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002‘ passed 297-133 in the House (with 215 Republicans and 82 Democrats in favor) and 77-23 in the Senate (with 48 Republicans and 29 Democrats in favor). Notable Senate Democrats who voted in favor, indicating that after reviewing the available information they believed that force was justified, include then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).
Myth #7: Shameless American Imperialism
I have heard the Iraq War labeled as shameless American imperialism, but it is rare that I’ve heard any actual attempt at explaining how this war was imperialistic except in a nebulous, poorly-defined ‘cultural imperialism’ way that is a blatant mis-use of the term. Imperialism has nothing to do with free trade and commerce between nations, which is the benign (and often beneficial) thing that oft’ gets labeled with the word. No, imperialism is the subjugation of other nations and peoples for the sole benefit of the imperial power.
The United States did flirt with being an imperial power at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1898, following the Spanish-American War, we annexed the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as American colonies. While we were a somewhat more benevolent colonial power than the European powers, our end goal was essentially the same—to take a significant portion of the economic production of those countries for ourselves. Our empire, however, lasted less than half a century—far shorter than those of the European powers. The Philippines gained full and complete independence in 1946. Puerto Rico gained its right to self-government in 1947 (although the Puerto Rican people have voted several times to remain, by free choice, a U.S. commonwealth). Among the acquisitions of this short imperial era, only Guam, with its comparatively tiny population of under 200,000, remains a non-self-governing territory.
We, like most of the rest of the world, have long since given up on the idea of the imperial state. Free, voluntary trade has far greater benefits for everybody involved, in both the short- and long-term. The closest thing to imperialism that you could accuse us of is that, indeed, Iraq’s transition from totalitarian dictatorship to free democracy is likely (though not assured) to eventually make Iraq a vibrant part of the world trade community. American businesses will reap the benefits of this, if it happens . . . but so will the rest of the world and, more importantly, so will the people of Iraq. In return for fair-trade access to Iraq’s economic production, Iraq and her people get the world’s monetary investment, and access to the products of the world marketplace. Free trade is mutually beneficial, as anybody in an emerging ‘2nd world’ nation will tell you.
If we wanted an empire, would we allow the Iraqi people to draft their own constitution (which differs in substantial ways from our own)? Would we allow them to put that constitution to an open national referendum? Would we allow them to manage their own affairs, even to the point of agreeing to draw-down our military presence on their schedule instead of our own? Would we allow them to structure their own taxes and their own trade regulations and tariffs for their own benefit? Of course not! As in the case of the ‘War for Oil’ myth, the reality of how we have executed the war and the occupation that followed simply doesn’t align with the premise that imperial notions were our motivation.
Myth #8: Emboldened al-Qaeda and Undermined the War on Terror
The argument that the War in Iraq only served to embolden al-Qaeda is one rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of al-Qaeda’s (and other Islamist terrorist groups’) motivations. They are not motivated by a desire to evict westerners from the middle east, but by a desire to establish a world-wide Islamic caliphate (religious empire) and to either convert the entire world to Islam (by force if necessary) or subjugate unbelievers as dhimmis. This is not something that al-Qaeda made up; it is spelled out plain-as-day in the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. While al-Qaeda is relatively new, its fundamental worldview (and many of its tactics) are as old as Islam itself—doctrines that predate the United States’ existence, let alone our foray into Iraq.
This myth has two limited nuggets of truth: the War in Iraq did serve as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda in certain Islamic circles, and it did get al-Qaeda ‘riled up’ because our free, secular worldview would get to influence the new Iraq instead of their restrictive, totalitarian one. But these nuggets of truth must be weighed against everything else.
It has been said that Iraq has nothing to do with the War on Terror, and that was true at the war’s outset. President George W. Bush’s (R) attempts to link Saddam Hussein with the 9/11/2001 attacks were absurd and can be dismissed outright, although it is worth noting that Hussein was among only a small handful of world leaders who chose to engage in demagoguery instead of offering us sympathy after the attacks, saying “the American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity.” But the fact that Hussein’s Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11/2001 attacks, and that al-Qaeda didn’t particularly like Hussein either, doesn’t mean that the War in Iraq had a negative impact on the War on Terror. On the contrary, the War in Iraq was instrumental in destroying al-Qaeda, because it distracted them from their core mission.
Iraq, and our military presence there, served as a lightning rod for al-Qaeda. In their worldview, we were encroaching on Muslim lands, and it was critically important to them to repel the infidel invaders. This took strategic precedence over terror attacks on the infidels themselves (i.e., us). As such, al-Qaeda focused nearly all of its energies on fighting American troops in a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, when they otherwise would have spent the last decade fighting innocent civilians here on U.S. soil. They left the orchestration of terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe to incompetent regional organizations and ‘lone wolves,’ which is why there have been comparatively few major terror attacks since 9/11/2001, and why the few there were have generally been poorly organized and badly executed.
Al-Qaeda has been forced to engage their efforts against well-armed fighting men, instead of against unarmed American office workers in New York and Washington. It is difficult to tell whether this was our strategy all along, or whether we embraced it as a ‘target of opportunity’ when al-Qaeda fighters started streaming into Iraq, but there should be no doubt about the outcome either way: Iraq didn’t distract us from the War on Terror nearly as much as it distracted al-Qaeda from committing terrorist acts in the west.
Myth #9: Bush Should’ve Been Impeached for Lying
In order for this myth to be true, two criteria must be met. First, we must establish that President George W. Bush lied. Second, we must establish that lying constitutes an impeachable offense.
Let’s start with the accusation that Bush lied to lead us to war. This accusation usually focuses on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs, which were (as discussed earlier) much less advanced and expansive than we had been led to believe. It is clear that one of two things happened: Bush lied to us, or Bush reported erroneous information to us believing it to be true at the time. Bush’s political opposition chose very early to assume that he had lied, but there is quite a bit of evidence supporting the argument that he accurately reported information he believed (though it turned out later to be incorrect).
Bush’s claims about the state of Iraq’s weapons programs were in complete accord with his predecessor’s statements on the subject. Speaking in December 1998 as he authorized the ‘Operation Desert Fox’ air strikes in Iraq, President Bill Clinton (D) said, “The international community had little doubt [at the end of the Gulf War], and I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.” He continued later in the speech saying, “This situation presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere. . . . [W]ithout a strong inspection system, Iraq would be free to retain and begin to rebuild its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs in months, not years.”
It is no wonder that Clinton and his wife, then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), were among the strongest supporters of the Iraq War at its beginning in 2003. If Bush did lie about the state of Iraq’s weapons programs, then so did his predecessor. More likely, Clinton and Bush both received erroneous information from our intelligence services, perhaps because analysts fell for Hussein’s deceptions. If this was the case, then there were very serious problems with our intelligence gathering and analysis techniques . . . but if a president believes something to be true, and acts in good faith on that belief, that does not make him a liar.
Admittedly, this does not necessarily acquit Bush. It is possible that he and Clinton, for reasons unknown, both lied to us about Iraq . . . though I consider this unlikely. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Bush did lie about Iraq’s weapons programs. Is this an impeachable offense?
The U.S. Constitution states in Article II, Section 4 that “The President . . . shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This allows some room for interpretation, but a good rule-of-thumb is that presidents can be removed from office if they commit serious crimes (i.e., felonies) while in office. President Andrew Johnson (R) was impeached, but not convicted, on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act (which was later found unconstitutional). Clinton was impeached, but not convicted, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The simplistic argument for impeaching Bush was that, since he had supposedly lied, he deserved the same treatment that Clinton got for lying. This argument glosses over a very important distinction: Clinton lied under oath in a court of law. Whatever we think of the merit of the case that was being investigated, the simple fact remains that lying under oath is a serious felony that you or I would likely have gone to jail for. Lying in-and-of itself, however, is not a crime—even for public officials. It might be morally reprehensible and politically destructive, but that doesn’t make it impeachable. Even if Bush were a lying scumbag who dragged us into Iraq for no good reason (despite all the evidence to the contrary), it would still not constitute legal grounds for impeachment.
Myth #10: Iraq is Worse-Off Today Than Under Hussein
Human rights violations under Saddam Hussein’s regime are well-documented. A Commission for Human Rights resolution in 2002 stated that Hussein’s government continually committed “systematic, widespread and extremely grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” Under Hussein, only members of the Arab Ba’ath Party had voting rights—less than 8 percent of the Iraqi population—and citizens were only permitted to gather in demonstrations if they were pro-government demonstrations. People were regularly arrested without being told what they had been charged with, and then left to die in dank prisons without any legal recourse. Families of prisoners were typically not told where their loved ones had been taken, or even told that they had been taken at all. People just ‘disappeared.’
In the prisons, brutal torture was the norm—things that made the Abu Ghraib prison abuse during the occupation and waterboarding at Guantanamo look like child’s play. Rape was used a political tool, and prisoners could be summarily executed for the most minor of offenses (or, in a number of documented cases, simply to reduce the number of prisoners to a defined quota level). Petty crimes like theft came with horrific penalties—having limbs amputated or being branded with a scalding hot iron. After the invasion, torture centers were found at police stations all around Iraq that included hanging hooks and electric shock devices. Countless mass-graves have been discovered scattered around the country, many filled with thousands and thousands of bodies.
Hussein is notable for being one of the only leaders in history to use chemical weapons on his own citizens, killing over 50,000 Iraqi Kurds—men, women, and children—in 1988. As many as 230,000 more Kurds and Shi’ites were killed by Hussein’s forces in massacres immediately following the Persian Gulf War. Dexter Filkins, reporting in 2007 for the New York Times (a paper that didn’t exactly support the war), said that “[Hussein] murdered as many as a million of his people, many with poison gas. He tortured, maimed and imprisoned countless more. . . . More insidious, arguably, was the psychological damage he inflicted on his own land.”
Is Iraq perfect now? Absolutely not. The people of Iraq suffered greatly in the initial invasion, though civilians were never the coalition’s intended targets, and they have continued to suffer under the sectarian violence and al-Qaeda terror attacks that became commonplace during the occupation. But family members generally don’t disappear into prisons to be killed, raped, branded, or have their limbs amputated any more. Every Iraqi adult has the right to vote and influence their government. Yes, the people of Iraq still have to live in fear of violence, but they no longer have to fear that violence being perpetrated by the very government charged with protecting them. Soldiers no longer snuff out the lives of men, women, and children with chemical weapons. There are no more mass graves.
Is Iraq better today than it was in the waning days of the Saddam Hussein regime? It’s a question so absurd that it barely warrants response. We made plenty of mistakes along the way, and there is a lot more to do before Iraq becomes the vibrant, proud nation it ought to be, but the sufferings of the Iraqi people today are far less than they were a decade ago by any objective measure. Not only that, but under Hussein the future was uncertain. The country was going nowhere. Now, despite its problems, Iraq has a chance to succeed. In the end it is up to the people of Iraq whether to embrace that chance or squander it, but any rational human being would prefer to live in a country that has a chance—and some basic civil and economic freedoms—over living under a murderous, totalitarian madman like Saddam Hussein.
And in the end, this is the best justification for the Iraq War that anybody could ask for. The people of Iraq deserve, as much as anybody else in the world, their basic human liberties and the chance to make something of themselves. We have given them that chance; now here’s hoping that they take it.
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