Dear Dr. Sen,
I’m happy to have a discussion about the invasion of Iraq if that’s what you prefer—though perhaps we should then get back to your book. I really have no doubt that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was the right thing to do. Even despite the Bush administration’s poor decisions in the aftermath of the invasion, and despite the enormous difficulties that have arisen in bringing stability and security to Iraq, I don’t think either the world or the Iraqi people would be better off with Saddam still in power. The one thing that would lead me to judge the invasion a mistake would be if the United States and its allies were to withdraw from Iraq prematurely and allow it to disintegrate, thus inviting interventions from neighboring powers and possibly making it a safe haven for terrorists. I don’t believe that this will happen, however. I think both this administration and the next will maintain U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as the political and financial commitment to Iraq, and that, over time, the process of rebuilding the country will move forward.
I have a hard time understanding the argument that things would have been better had Saddam been left in power. I happened to read this morning the Human Rights Watch account of the atrocity at Halabja in 1988, when Saddam and his forces used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population of men, women, and children, just as he used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and civilians during the long Iraq-Iran war. This was not the only atrocity and massacre that Saddam ordered against his own people. (And the fact that we in the West, including in the United States, ignored these atrocities is a reason for shame but was not an argument for continuing to ignore Saddam’s behavior in perpetuity.) Nor if he remained in power today would he hesitate to carry out similar atrocities if he felt he could get away with them. We often ask, looking back at slaughters committed by people known for their cruelty, why the world didn’t act to stop them from striking again. I think if we had left Saddam in power, we would have been left asking ourselves that question after he committed the next atrocity or the next aggression.
To put this discussion somewhat in the context of your book, I’d like to make clear that I didn’t judge Saddam as part of any category of people, culture, or “civilization.” Saddam was a uniquely cruel and aggressive dictator but hardly of the kind to be found only in his part of the world. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once compared him to Hitler. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell called him “one of the leading terrorists on the face of the Earth.” For more than a decade, he built and maintained an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, which he was more than willing to use against his own people and against his neighbors. He attempted to build nuclear weapons in the years leading up to the first Persian Gulf War, and it was later learned that he had come very close to succeeding—ironically, a development that U.S. and European intelligence entirely missed. It now appears that he halted those efforts at some point in the 1990s, but weapons-inspections teams led by David Kay and Charles Duelfer determined that it was his firm intention to resume that quest as soon as international pressures abated. In the meantime, it seems Saddam wanted both his own people and the world to believe he possessed all manner of weapons of mass destruction. His deception was so elaborate that even his own generals believed he possessed these weapons. It is not surprising that the intelligence agencies of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and many other nations believed he did, too. What can we say about a man willing to risk invasion in order to pretend that he had weapons of mass destruction, especially given that he had a record of both building and using such weapons? That it would have been better to leave him in power?
I would argue that such a man was too dangerous, both to his own people and to his neighbors, to leave in power, just as I felt that Slobodan Milosevic was too dangerous to leave in power and thus supported the American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Unlike even today’s Iran, which has committed acts of terror but has not yet invaded its neighbors, Saddam was a serial aggressor who launched unprovoked invasions against Iran and Kuwait as part of an effort to gain dominance of his region through control of its resources. He was a man with a mission, and he was determined to carry it out whenever the opportunity afforded. Indeed, I believe that even if the United States had not gone to war in 2003, Saddam would have provoked a confrontation at some point that would have put the international community in the position of either capitulating or seeking his removal from power. It is worth recalling that Saddam managed to provoke not one but three U.S. presidents to take military action against him: the first President Bush in 1991, President Clinton in 1998, and the second President Bush in 2003. Not only do I think the war to remove Saddam was right, I am not at all convinced that it was avoidable.
Let me add, finally, that I did not favor the invasion of Iraq primarily to bring democracy to Iraq or to push the broader Middle East in a more liberal direction, although I hope it may eventually do both. My reasons were and remain primarily strategic. I do think that Saddam’s foreign policy was of a piece with his domestic rule: that he employed brutality at home to seize and maintain power and therefore employed brutality abroad to enhance his power. But had Saddam been a dictator like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, I would have supported significant political, diplomatic, and economic pressures against him but not an invasion. Saddam was in a special class, not only because he was a dictator but because his genocidal, inhuman behavior moved him across a threshold of tolerance, and because he was a threat not only to his own people but to everyone around him, as the widows and orphans of hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Kuwaitis can attest. In these respects, he might be put in the same class as Milosevic, but I believe he was actually a good deal more dangerous.
Once having invaded, however, I think the United States had an obligation not to hand the Iraqi people over to the mercies of some new dictator, but to give them a chance to enjoy the rights we believe to be universal. Nor as a practical matter do I believe there is any other viable way to construct a government in Iraq. So, I don’t understand those who argue that it has been a mistake to try to support democracy in post-Saddam Iraq. What alternative do they have in mind? Which dictator would they choose to put in place? And supported by what army?
I am sure you may disagree with some and perhaps all of this, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
All best wishes,