Requiem for a Dictator

In February 2003, President Bush argued that "a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq." According to the president, the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein’s rule were living "in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture." Therefore, "any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them."

Now that he has been executed the question that must be asked is: Since Saddam Hussein was the raison d’être for taking preemptive action against Iraq, was launching such a war worth it?

The original charge against Saddam was WMD. Speaking in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 2002, President Bush claimed that "Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant, who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people." Nearly four years after invading Iraq, no WMD have been found. According to the Iraq Survey Group, "Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991," and "in 1991 and 1992, Iraq appears to have destroyed its undeclared stocks of BW [biological warfare] weapons and probably destroyed the remaining holdings of bulk BW agent." Moreover, the Iraq Survey Group concluded that "Iraq ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war" and "found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program."

But even if Saddam had chemical or biological weapons (which was a fair assumption) or even a nuclear weapon (which was a stretch of the imagination), he did not have the long-range military capability to strike the United States and thus pose a direct threat. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that even if Hussein had WMD he could be deterred from using such weapons against the United States. According to Keith Payne, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the first term of the Bush administration:

"What, for example, was the value of nuclear weapons for deterrence in the Gulf War? By Iraqi accounts, nuclear deterrence prevented Iraq’s use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) that could have inflicted horrendous civilian and military casualties on us and our allies. Senior Iraqi wartime leaders have explained that while U.S. conventional threats were insufficient to deter, implicit U.S. nuclear threats did deter Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons. As the then-head of Iraqi military intelligence, Gen. Waffic al Sammarai, has stated, Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological weapons during the war, ‘because the warning was quite severe, and quite effective. The allied troops were certain to use nuclear arms and the price will be too dear and too high.’"

Since Iraq was not a direct military threat to the United States, to make the threat of WMD seem even more dire, President Bush argued either explicitly or implicitly on several occasions that Saddam Hussein could (the implication being that he would) give WMD to terrorists. For example, in his Cincinnati speech, the president claimed that "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliances with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." And more ominously, he warned that "we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. "But such "doom and gloom" statements have to be contrasted with the fact that Saddam Hussein never gave chemical and biological weapons to anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups that he supported.

Which leads to the second charge levied against Saddam: links to terrorism. According to the State Department’s 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, "Baghdad overtly assisted two categories of Iraqi-based terrorist organizations – Iranian dissidents devoted to toppling the Iranian Government and a variety of Palestinian groups opposed to peace with Israel." But these terrorist groups were not direct threats to the United States. More importantly, despite President Bush’s assertion in September 2003 that "there’s no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaeda ties," the reality is that the 9/11 Commission found no evidence of a collaborative operational relationship. At most, Saddam and al-Qaeda shared a common hatred of the United States, which was hardly enough to make them allies or to warrant the conclusion that Hussein would give WMD to al-Qaeda. Although both Sunni Arabs, it is important to remember that Hussein was a Muslim secular ruler while bin Laden is a radical Muslim fundamentalist – hardly compatible ideological views. Indeed, intelligence analysts inside and outside the government pointed out that bin Laden went out of his way in the recording to show his disdain for Hussein and the Ba’ath Party by referring to them as "infidels" and an "infidel regime."

The bottom line is that Saddam did not have any WMD and was not in league with al-Qaeda. These two facts must be contrasted against the current reality of Iraq:

  • 3,000 American soldiers have been killed, equal to the number of people killed in the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
  • According to, more than 50,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. A study by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Health estimates that 655,000 Iraqis who might otherwise still be alive have died as a result of the U.S. invasion – a number that is more than double what Human Rights Watch has estimated Saddam Hussein’s regime killed during his 20-year reign.
  • Instead of Iraqi oil revenues paying for the cost of the war and reconstruction, U.S. taxpayers have been left to foot the bill. Four defense supplemental requests to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have totaled $294 billion, and the most recent supplemental request is for $99 billion. According to the National Priorities Project, the price tag for the war is over $350 billion and counting. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the war could end up costing a staggering $1 trillion to $2 trillion.
  • Instead of becoming a stable democracy, Iraq has plunged into a civil war.
  • Under Saddam’s rule Iraq was not an al-Qaeda or radical Islamic terrorist breeding ground, but according to a June 2005 CIA assessment has now become a more potent training and breeding ground for Islamic terrorists than Afghanistan was in the 1980s.
  • It is true enough that Saddam Hussein was an odious dictator. But ridding the world of a brutal dictator, who was not a military or terrorist threat to America, has not been worth the price in blood or treasure – and that price will only go up as President Bush continues to pursue his quixotic quest of democracy on the Tigris and Euphrates (according to Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, President Bush told military commanders a few weeks ago, "What I want to hear from you is how we’re going to win, not how we’re going to leave."). However, such a quest ignores the fact that the enemy at the gates was – and continues to be – the al-Qaeda terrorist network (and the radical Islamist ideology it represents) operating in 60 or more countries around the world. Although it seems obvious, it is important to remember that the attacks of 9/11 were not carried out by Saddam Hussein. None of the 19 hijackers were Iraqis. Iraq has not been proved to be linked to the planning, financing, or execution of those attacks. And the former regime was not known to support or provide safe harbor to al-Qaeda, as did the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

    Ironically, the result of making Saddam Hussein a target can best be summed up by President Bush’s own words at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003: "No government should ignore the threat of terror, because to look the other way gives terrorists the chance to regroup and recruit and prepare."

    Author: Charles V. Peña

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.