We all read all sorts of back-and-forth about Iraq. There are the coulda-woulda-shouldas of whether we should have gone in or not, how we could have managed things better after we got there (which we sure as anything coulda and shoulda, long before we finally implemented the Surge), and whether we should stay or not now (which, of course, we should).
But few couch the situation preceding the Iraq decision the way I remember it as clearly as Doug Feith's piece in The Wall Street Journal today.
What I remember is that we had an unsolved problem that needed solving. For 12 years Saddam had violated the terms under which we had stopped shooting in 1991. This was not a mere abstract problem, not a question of tidying up loose ends. As Feith writes, Iraq was shooting at U.S. and British pilots enforcing the No-Fly zone almost daily. Regime change had been, for good reason, the policy of this country since 1998 — but we hadn't figured out how to get it done.
Totally apart from the need to "drain swamps" in the Mideast, apart from whether Saddam still had the WMD we had already seen him use on his own people, this was the situation (and had been the situation ever since the first Bush administration):
In the months before the 9/11 attack, Secretary of
State Colin Powell advocated diluting the multinational economic
sanctions, in the hope that a weaker set of sanctions could win
stronger and more sustained international support. Central Intelligence
Agency officials floated the possibility of a coup, though the 1990s
showed that Saddam was far better at undoing coup plots than the CIA
was at engineering them. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
asked if the U.S. might create an autonomous area in southern Iraq
similar to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, with the goal of
making Saddam little more than the "mayor of Baghdad." U.S. officials
also discussed whether a popular uprising in Iraq should be encouraged,
and how we could best work with free Iraqi groups that opposed the
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld worried
particularly about the U.S. and British pilots enforcing the no-fly
zones over northern and southern Iraq. Iraqi forces were shooting at
the U.S. and British aircraft virtually every day; if a plane went
down, the pilot would likely be killed or captured. What then? Mr.
Rumsfeld asked. Were the missions worth the risk? How might U.S. and
British responses be intensified to deter Saddam from shooting at our
planes? Would the intensification trigger a war? What would be the
consequences of cutting back on the missions, or ending them?
However wrong he'd later prove to be about how to conduct our operation in Iraq — and he was WAY wrong — Rumsfeld was at that time raising the right questions.
After 9/11, things changed — among them our willingness to let a problem such as this one fester. As Mr. Feith notes:
To contain the threat from Saddam, all reasonable means short of war had been tried unsuccessfully for a dozen years.
The U.S. did not rush to war. Working mainly through the U.N., we tried
a series of measures to contain the Iraqi threat: formal diplomatic
censure, weapons inspections, economic sanctions, no-fly zones,
no-drive zones and limited military strikes. A defiant Saddam, however,
dismantled the containment strategy and the U.N. Security Council had
no stomach to sustain its own resolutions, let alone compel Saddam's
You may remember it differently. But that's pretty much the way I remember it.