The Iraq War: Not Illegal, Not Immoral, and Not Over

This is a cross-post by James Snell

Today sees the publication of an entirely excellent article in The Times by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford. In it, the good professor takes apart a number of myths which have been allowed to coagulate about the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, one of the most evil men in recent history whose autocratic (and kleptocratic) rule led to the foundation not just of ISIS – as if it was not enough – but the creation of much of Iraq’s current sectarian turmoil.

In the wake of an absurd and self-serving and opportunistic pledge from Jeremy Corbyn – the man who is now all but certain to win the Labour leadership election and to become Leader of the Opposition – to apologise for the Iraq War, such things cannot be said too frequently. Accordingly, what Professor Biggar wrote deserves quoting at length.

As Professor Biggar rightfully notes, the Saddam regime was most certainly ‘monstrous’. He describes some of its almost industrial sadism, which marshalled all of the forces of inhumanity to brutalise a captive population.

In the 15 years before the 2003 invasion it killed up to half a million of its own citizens. After the failed 1991 uprising in the south, its agents poured petrol down the throats of rebels and set them alight. Back in Baghdad the Special Treatment Department was busy dismembering living prisoners with chainsaws, squeezing their skulls in metal vices until brain-matter oozed out, and making parents watch their flailing children disappear under swarms of wasps in confined spaces.

We know all of this, he writes, because it is documented on video – and that modern facility is a development some of Saddam’s successors have relished; ISIS in particular uses this capacity to chronicle its carefully manicured depravity. As I have written before:

To Sunnis of a similar ideological bent, the remarkably high-quality footage of torture and mass murder that ISIS produces is intended to serve as a rallying cry. To opponents – of any political, religious or ethnic stripe – it acts as a warning. ‘Join us’, it says, ‘or stay away’.

Returning to Saddam, there can be little suggestion after that litany of horror that Professor Biggar is anything but correct in his next statement: ‘[s]uch a regime deserved to be toppled; its vile nature was sufficient just cause for invasion’.

And here we come into contact with the massed core of anti-regime-change activism. Some – but by no means all – of those who opposed the invasion would have known about Saddam’s crimes. (This in my view makes them guilty of callousness and self-regard on a global scale. Who but a narcissist or a sadist would want to perpetuate a mafia-state which specialised in torture and the industrialisation of terror in order only to assuage one’s conscience?)

But let us imagine that the opponent of war in 2003 knew nothing of these things; let us assume that such a person cared only for international legality out of a genuine desire to see the establishment and enforcement of international order. Even so, however, the case for opposing the war is not a terribly strong one. Ex post facto smugness about the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction simply doesn’t cut it. (For one thing, there is still a genuine debate as to whether Saddam had WMD at the time of the Iraq invasion; The New York Timesreported in 2014 that old chemical weapons possessed by the Iraqi regime had indeed been discovered – but then, bizarrely, many appeared to blame the Bush Administration for not reacting adequately to the possibility of soldiers being injured by weapons they said didn’t exist in the first place.)

It must not be forgotten that there was an international consensus among the intelligence community as to Saddam’s aspirations on the WMD front, Professor Biggar notes. Even the Russians, who have recent form in fabricating documents which purport to disprove allegations surrounding chemical war crimes, believed that the Iraqi regime either had the weapons or was well on the way to acquiring them. That final point is essential. Even if the evidence did not exist to suggest that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, everyone who was anyone in 2003 thought he was absolutely set on getting his hands on some.

As Dr David Kelly wrote ‘on the eve of the invasion’: ‘“The long-term threat … remains Iraq’s development to military maturity of weapons of mass destruction – something only regime change will avert.”’

‘But even if the invasion was illegal,’ Professor Biggar notes, ‘it could still have been moral.’ Intervention – be it through force or non-violent means – in a matter of grave urgency or unfolding crisis can be rather easily justified from a moral standpoint. Professor Biggar crisply summarises this truth in relation to another intervention, one which has already largely been vindicated in the light of history.

As the leading international lawyer, Martti Koskenniemi, observed of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, “most lawyers have taken the position that it was both formally illegal and morally necessary”.

The Kosovo intervention was undertaken to prevent an act of genocide. The Saddam regime had already committed genocide by 2003; by such a measure, the toppling of this particular tyranny was long overdue.

The way the Coalition handled the post-Saddam situation in Iraq has met with a great deal of criticism. A fair amount of it is justified, and there should be appropriate censure for those who, for example, failed to keep Baghdad’s lights on; theirs was an unpardonable error. But this criticism – much of which is tied in by opportunistic opponents of Western foreign policy to the general critique of regime change – was facilitated by the half-hearted manner in which intervention was carried out. As the good professor writes: ‘if an apology is fitting here, it’s not for too much intervention, but too little: the problem wasn’t too many boots on the ground, but too few.’ It is the same situation that, as I have pointed out before, has befallen Libya in the aftermath of the Gaddafi despotism.

The final word on the terrible violence which followed the removal of Saddam goes to Professor Biggar: ‘[t]he vast majority of the 200,000 casualties of the ensuing anarchy were killed, not by American or British soldiers, but by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists.’ And unless we abnegate their culpability on their behalf (a slightly worrying and growing trend in certain circles), the ‘primary responsibility for the carnage must rest with the perpetrators’.

Professor Biggar’s penultimate paragraph serves as a pertinent reminder of the stakes.

Five years ago I asked a group of young Iraqi professionals what they thought about the invasion. Their spokesman replied: “It’s good that it happened. It could have been done better. And it isn’t over.”

And that rallying cry, it seems, is the appropriate point at which to end. It is not our place to abandon the people of Iraq – and other nations too, many of which still languish under the brutal and tyrannical rule of autocrats – in a fit of parochialism and self-hatred. Now is not the time to turn inwards, blithely retreating from international pre-eminence and the inevitable responsibility such a position demands. Of course we should recognise the flaws of this war, and there were many. But that does not mean for a second that we should abandon those the world over who still suffer under states who use repression and torture to maintain a stranglehold on power; and nor should we allow murderous states – states who have sponsored international terror and who have designs on developing weapons of mass destruction, perhaps – a free rein in international affairs. Not without a fight, at any rate.