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Monday, November 17, 2003

WAS THE IRAQ INVASION UNNECCESSARY? David Aaronovitch's Observer column, which is by now a must-read, at the side mentions an important aspect to the whole Iraq war debate, that often gets a little buried:

A senior ex-military man said to me that, in his opinion, the Iraqi invasion had been unnecessary because 'containment was working. Sanctions were working. No-fly was working'. Only the Iraqi people were suffering, almost extravagantly, from the combination of sanctions plus Saddam. But at least no bodies were returning in RAF transports.

Right now my interest here is not the moral perspective on this, but the strategic one. Was the containment regime really working? And at what price?
The containment regime wasn't working. Sanctions were always enforced imperfectly, as they tend to, which is why they usually don't work or are counterproductive. Weapons technology was getting into Iraq anyway and the will in the UN security council to maintain the regime was falling, with France, Russia and China actively seeking to end it, while prior to 9/11 even the Bushies had shown some indication of wanting to loosen the grip on Saddam in return for oil drilling rights.
But let's pretend the sanctions were working. The price tag was too large. The permanent stationing of coalition forces in the Gulf region were the original casus belli of al Quaeda and there can be little doubt that a smaller footprint by the West is one key to lower the incidence of terrorism. (For the relationship between the footprint and terrorism see this report by Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute.) Withdrawal from the Gulf was not possible due to the need to maintain the containment regime, so Saddam remaining in place would have fed terrorism, although in the short term his removal has led to a predictable but temporary increase. Also, Saddam was in open defiance of the coalition by continuously violating the 1991 ceasefire agreement and getting away with it. This sent the clear message out that the West had lost its nerve and wouldn't put up a fight. And hence, to use bin Laden's metaphor, the West looked like the weak horse and the anti-Western totalitarian forces looked like the strong horse. Not just looked it, but felt it too, which is why after a string of successful minor attacks in the 1990s, they decided they could afford to murder thousands in New York in 2001. This process of destroying Western, and particularly the all-important US, strategic credibility is one of the major driving forces behind the growth of international terrorism and the proliferation of wmds. That's a price tag that would have been too high, even if containment had worked, and not just in the well-documented human terms but also in strategic ones.

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