In an Oval Office address 20 years ago this week, President George W. Bush announced that the United States and its allies had embarked on a military campaign "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." Like most Americans at the time, I supported the decision to end the barbaric regime of Saddam Hussein.
That campaign was a phenomenal success.
Saddam's statue came down only a couple weeks later in a moment of jubilation. And despite conventional wisdom that the Iraq War was about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the decision to overthrow the malignant dictator was correct and stands up to historic evaluation.
Mistakes occurred in Iraq, as they do in all wars. After removing Saddam from power, the coalition was slow to put Iraqis in charge of their government, the local army disbanded too rapidly, and didn't anticipate the insurgency led by Saddam’s loyalists. Because of that, the war lasted longer than we assumed and cost way too many lives.
But the invasion itself was justified.
Saddam not only ruled Iraq with cruelty, but posed a threat beyond his borders. The Butcher of Baghdad amassed a record of war crimes with few parallels in modern history. During his quarter-century in power, he launched unprovoked wars against neighboring countries, murdered over 50,000 Kurdish civilians in genocidal attacks, and engaged in torture.
Saddam began two of the worst military conflicts of the latter 20th century — Iran/Iraq war, which killed 1 million people over eight years, and the Gulf War, triggered by his invasion of Kuwait. Not only did Saddam long pursue and develop WMD, he used them against Iran and for the mass murder of innocent Kurds.
The U.S. and its allies attempted to contain Saddam via 16 UN Security Council resolutions. Iraq faced economic sanctions, was ordered to dismantle its stockpiles of WMD, and required to verify compliance with UN weapons inspectors. But Saddam thwarted the weapons inspections and bypassed sanctions.
In 1995, inspectors learned that Iraq's WMD programs were far more extensive than they had realized. Three years later, a bipartisan consensus in Washington emerged that Saddam was too dangerous to remain in power. Democrats and Republicans passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Iraq Liberation Act, making an explicit goal of U.S. policy "to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
When Saddam expelled weapons inspectors and refused to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Clinton kinetically bombed Iraqi military sites; Saddam responded by firing at U.S. and British planes patrolling no-fly zones.
Democrats and Republicans recognized that so long as Saddam remained in power, he posed an ominous threat. Even Joe Biden said in 1998 that "taking this son of a — taking Saddam down" was the only way to disarm Iraq of its WMD.
After the 9/11 attacks, there was an understandable urgency to keep WMD away from Islamist terrorists. Given his history of using WMD, myriad connections with terrorist organizations, and disregard for the rule of law, the Bush administration decided Saddam could not remain in power. Congress voting by lopsided majorities to authorize military force against Iraq.
In November 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a 17th resolution, offering Iraq a final opportunity to demonstrate that its biological and chemical weapons had been destroyed.
Intelligence agencies assessed that Saddam harbored WMD and he refused to provide the Security Council with evidence proving he had disarmed.
Several months after Saddam was overthrown, the chief American weapons investigator in Iraq testified that Saddam's covert weapons capacity remained intact.
The Bush administration has been more than patient.
Media has convinced members of both parties that the Iraq War was solely predicated on WMD stockpiles. When they didn't materialize, Democrats speciously attacked Bush for having "lied" the country into war. Weapons stockpiles were never the chief reason for going to war. Bush's primary case for regime change was the threat Saddam posed to the Middle East, and through collaboration with terrorists, to the West.
Iraq War critics rarely if ever grapple with the consequences of not invading.
We did not lose the war in Iraq; the current situation on the ground shows a fragile democracy and every metric shows life is freer than under Saddam. This situation is especially telling compared to Afghanistan, where Biden's catastrophic blunders made certain the Taliban could claim victory.
The Iraq invasion was undertaken to remove one of the world's bloodiest tyrants from power and prevent another horror, like 9/11, from killing innocent people. Two decades later, despite misinformation, these remain honorable goals.
Ari J. Kaufman is a veteran reporter for U.S. newspapers and magazines from Minnesota and Ohio to Tennessee and Virginia. He taught school and served as a military historian before beginning his journalism career. The author of three books, he is also a frequent guest on radio programs and contributes to Israel National News and The Lid.