What did they know, and when did they know it?
Published February 6, 2004

It is a statement of the obvious to say that we will never really know what might have happened had we not invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, had we let the Iraqi people continue to live under the thumb of oppression, and had we waited to see if stronger sanctions and the threat of military force without its actual application could change the ways of the country's wily dictator. What it would be nice to know, however, is just why the leaders of our country thought it necessary to prosecute this war, at this time, in this way.

Why this war? Iraq was most definitely not a nice place under Saddam's rule. Hussain had a long history of violence against his own people, against minorities in his country, and against neighbors. He was certainly a factor for instability in the region. Unfortunately, there are quite a few countries that you could make the same statements about: several in Africa would qualify, Myanmar is another good example, Pakistan isn't the most stable place around, and North Korea has essentially been proved to have nuclear weapons. There's probably a few that I'm forgetting.

So, what was different in Iraq? You know the answer already: weapons of mass destruction, WMD, that handy acronym that's become a regular part of our conversations over the last two years or so. Maybe the title of this piece should be "What did he have, and when did he have it?" That's the question that is finally being asked and answered, and it's one that sits at the center of a controversy over this war that is sure to be extended into the fall election season.

At the United Nations in October of 2002 and at the 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush made a strong case for action against Iraq based, he said, on evidence that Iraq either possessed or was on the verge of possessing chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. The threat was immediate, and it was not just to Saddam's regional enemies but the the very heartland of the United States.

We have since not only discovered that this was not the case, but have also found that the evidence, such as it was before the war began, did not point to such a strong case either. The best argument we hear now from the President is that Iraq and Saddam were a "grave and gathering threat to America and the world." He also referred to the "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" that we've discovered in Iraq, program activities that were probably blown out of proportion by Iraqi scientists in order to keep Saddam happy and their heads in the right spot on their shoulders.

It's hard to argue against a fait accompli; we've won in Iraq, and if we only manage to have the will to do so, it's likely that we'll manage to cobble together some sort of representative government that will no doubt be an improvement for the large majority of Iraqis. "We've done the right thing," say the President's apologists; "Who cares about why, exactly, we got into the war; we've freed millions from oppression and fear of death, we're going to establish a democracy in the Middle East, we've eliminated one of the 20th century's most vile dictators and will even manage to bring him to justice. Why are you liberal whiners complaining?"

To that I would answer only, "Because we were misled." It is a admirable goal to free the world of oppression; I don't think anyone could reasonably argue that Iraq was not a place of tyranny and violence. However, the same can be said of many places in this world. Where do we draw the line? Do we only go in if the place of oppression is our enemy, and not, say, Saudi Arabia, which is possibly even more oppressive of its women in day-to-day life than was Iraq? Do we only do it if the cost in American lives is small enough that it will hopefully not play a role in future elections, and not somewhere like North Korea, where an invasion would almost certainly lead to massive casualties? Do we only do it in places where we have a regional economic interest, and not in central Africa, where the cost of our intervention would never be repaid by oil revenues? The recently-surfaced ideological arguments for war simply cannot be reconciled with the realpolitik attitude of the American government.

This is an argument some might call semantic, but it makes a difference because of the costs of the war. There are immense economic costs, not just to the United States and her citizens, who will carry the lion's share of the burden of securing and rebuilding Iraq, but for Iraq and Great Britain as well. There are diplomatic costs: our relentless and unflinching drive to war alienated a large part of the world, and despite our "coalition of the willing," many of the countries who did not favor our war matter very much. There are security costs: though certainly impressed with our show of military might, militant Islamic factions will find their recruitment of disaffected young men all the easier, while our military and intelligence resources are stretched thin in Iraq and Afganistan. And, of course, there are human costs, more than five hundred Americans already, and yet-uncounted numbers of Iraqis.

These things matter to me, and to a lot of Americans. They are questions that need to be answered; if the current administration is not up to the task of seeking these answers, or, worse yet, actively does not want them found, then it should not remain in power. It's a simple as that.