American Enterprise Online
September 21, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

When U.S. forces marched into Somalia in 1992 to rescue a friendless, faraway people from thugs who used both grain and guns as weapons in a tribal war, the American press (and much of the world) applauded. After all, it was the unblinking eye of the press that forced official Washington to see the agony of Mogadishu. When similar circumstances and images pulled the U.S. into the Balkans a few years later, Washington was greeted with a similar response. Some even gushed over the fact that America had intervened with little or no national interests at stake. Instead of the proxy wars and power politics that characterized America’s Cold War interventions, U.S. operations in Somalia and Bosnia and Kosovo would be fueled largely by humanitarian concerns.

Whether or not this is a legitimate rationale for U.S. military intervention is a subject for another essay. The purpose here is to ask a simple question: If it was right to crush the ethnic-cleansers in Bosnia and Kosovo, to scatter khat-chomping clans in Somalia, why is it now wrong to destroy the death squads crawling across Iraq? After all, in Iraq, as in Somalia and Bosnia, a stateless army of thugs is killing and maiming innocent people day after day. In Iraq, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, embattled leaders and brutalized populations have asked America to help.

Although the critics offer many reasons to explain why the humanitarian wars of the 1990s were right but the humanitarian intervention in Iraq is wrong, none of them seems to hold up to cross-examination:

I. The UN didn’t give its permission in Iraq.

This tops the list for many, especially French President Jacques Chirac. Of course, it pays to recall that in Bosnia, Chirac issued orders to his troops that totally ignored the UN command and mandate. His reason? The French leader was exasperated by UN fecklessness and futility. (George W. Bush could relate.) Yet when it came time to end the nightmare in Iraq and the farce at the UN, Chirac said “non.”

Likewise, Gen. Wes Clark has lambasted the decision to invade Iraq without explicit UN approval as “one of the greatest strategic blunders the American government has made since the end of the Cold War.” Of course, like Chirac, the general has a selective memory: There was no UN authorization for Gen. Clark’s war in Kosovo, although he waged it tenaciously and even recklessly. We know that he lobbied for a ground invasion of Serbia to end Milosevic’s brutal pogrom against Muslim Kosovars and even ordered his ground commander to deploy a helicopter assault team to block a surprise Russian advance into Kosovo’s major airfield. His British subordinate answered that order with a terse and chilling rejoinder: “I’m not going to start World War III for you.” Had Gen Clark gotten his way, one wonders where that blunder would have ranked on his list.

II. By fighting on in Iraq, we are opening ourselves up to charges of a religious war and an anti-Islamic crusade.

The United States has defended Muslim Saudi Arabia from Muslim Iraq, liberated Muslim Kuwait, rescued Muslim Kurdistan, fed Muslim Somalia, ended the vivisection of Muslim Bosnia, spared Muslim Kosovo from a similar fate and liberated Muslim Afghanistan and Muslim Iraq. In other words, the U.S. is not on a crusade against Islam; and if this record doesn’t convince radical or moderate Muslims, nothing will.

As to fighting religious wars, we shouldn’t presume that “God is on our side.” After all, that is the sort of thinking that gives the enemy license to wage his war with no limits.

Moreover, it’s especially important for a great, secular republic like ours to resist the temptation to wrap war in religious terms. Of course, past wars remind us that we haven’t always succeeded at this: Recall that when FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic, they sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” Likewise, it was during the Civil War that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was penned, with its stirring stanza, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

But no matter how hard we try to keep the secular from the sacred, today’s war critics (who were yesterday’s war supporters) should know that the enemy has already decided this is a religious war—a war between the faithless and the faithful, between those who will submit and those who won’t. The enemy knows that America’s faith is freedom, and he hates us for it—whether a U.S. soldier wears a cross, a Star of David, a crescent or nothing at all around his neck.

III. Prewar intelligence was bad and postwar planning was worse.

It pays to recall that even those governments which opposed the war, even Hans Blix and his inspectors, doubted Saddam’s WMD declarations. Perhaps he was hiding the banned weapons and trucked them over to Syria on the eve of war; perhaps he wasn’t and was a victim of his own perverse game of crying wolf. In any event, he always had the means to reawaken his slumbering WMD program, and he always had the motive to mete out revenge on the West at some unsuspecting moment. By waging war “at a time of our choosing,” Bush and his advisors made sure that moment would never come to pass.

As to the postwar situation, it was indeed poorly planned; however, we cannot leave Iraq and thus fuel the fires of jihad. As it is, the jihadists are being drawn to Iraq like moths to a light. That is not all bad for America. After all, the enemy is neither omnipotent nor omnipresent; he must pick his battles. As historian Paul Johnson has observed, “America obliged the leaders of international terrorism to concentrate all their efforts on preventing democracy from emerging in Iraq.”

Moreover, intelligence is never perfect. Recall that during Gen. Clark’s Kosovo war, U.S. missiles slammed into China’s Embassy in Belgrade. (Now that’s a blunder.)

IV. This is a popular insurgency in Iraq and an unpopular war in America.

With undeniable evidence that Iran and Syria are sending men and material into Iraq, “insurgency” is the wrong word since it implies an internal resistance. Iraqis want freedom. Iran, Syria, al Qaeda and Saddam’s leftovers do not.

Terror leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, commands an army of Saudis, Syrians, Chechens and Egyptians who usually arrive in Iraq through Syria. The Syrian government provides safe haven, safe passage and material support to these non-Iraqi fighters. Most of the Syrian fighters travel through the border town of Rabia and into Mosul, where they are placed in 10-man teams and fan out across Iraq to wreak havoc for 80-day tours. The Wall Street Journal notes that funding for the guerilla war is coming from Syrian banks, where Saddam Hussein stashed some $2.5 billion in assets. Iran has sent intelligence agents into Iraq to coordinate anti-government activity. In fact, “aid organizations” in Iran are even recruiting volunteers to conduct suicide bombings against American forces across the border.

And turning back to the examples of Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia, the ethnic Serbs spread across the carcass of Yugoslavia and Aidid’s clans in Mogadishu had far more popular support and political legitimacy for their wars than do the death squads terrorizing Iraq. (This is not to say Aidid’s or Milosevic’s methods were ever appropriate.) 

As to the popularity of the war at home, popularity is not a measure for rightness or necessity. Truman’s support hovered well below 50 percent during the Korean War, but it was right to defend South Korea and confront Moscow.

V. America is doing more harm than good.

Really? Afghanistan and Iraq have held democratic elections; Lebanon has rallied to end Syria’s occupation and open the way to a democratic future; and according to a Pew survey of Muslim nations, “Large and growing majorities in Morocco (83 percent), Lebanon (83 percent), Jordan (80 percent) and Indonesia (77 percent)…say democracy can work well and is not just for the West.” Four years ago, with the World Trade Center still smoldering and bin Laden’s popularity surging, such a scorecard would have sounded more like fantasy than fact.

Yet all of this has happened and more: A US-led coalition has captured or killed some 3,000 al-Qaeda operatives and not coincidentally prevented a replay of 9/11—a prospect we all expected on September 12, 2001. Sufficiently impressed by America’s work in Iraq, Libya’s Moammar Quadaffi decided it was better to preemptively surrender his WMD arsenal than end up cowering in a hole like Saddam Hussein. His WMDs are now in Tennessee.

VI. Iraq is too expensive in blood and treasure.

First, those who suggest that Iraq was a cost-free proposition before the U.S. intervened are simply wrong. Containing Saddam by enforcing no-fly zones was costing $13 billion each year, as historian Niall Ferguson reminds us. But that’s only a fraction of the price tag: Trying to contain Saddam by basing troops in Saudi Arabia exposed America to an enormous risk and invited the global guerilla war that began in the 1990s and reached its horrific crescendo on 9/11. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended after the Gulf War and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, U.S. troops took up permanent residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of September 11, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today.

That is the full measure of containing Saddam, and America is still paying the price.

Do the ends justify the means in Iraq? Many of those who say no were once of the opinion that failure was not an option in Kosovo. Make no mistake, stabilizing the Balkans was important. (I, for one, strongly advocated it.) But failure in the Balkans would not have led to the disaster that failure in Iraq could trigger. Failing to push Milosevic out of Kosovo may have broken NATO but probably wouldn’t have directly impacted one American. NATO’s lackluster performance in Afghanistan and virtual agnosticism over Iraq serve to underscore this point.

Failure in Iraq, on the other hand, would play into the enemy’s hands by proving his point that America lacks the will to fight and to stand with those who are willing to fight. Quitting Iraq would be disastrous in the short term—something like Munich, the fall of Saigon, Desert One, and the Beirut and Mogadishu pullouts all rolled into one giant propaganda victory for the enemy. And it would be frightful in the long term. Imagine Iraq spawning a Balkan-style ethno-religious war, while serving as a Taliban-style haven for terror.

In that light, the current costs seem modest by comparison.