The wrong war,
    in the wrong place,
    at the wrong time

Kerry’s position makes sense: it was right to give Saddam Hussein the heave-ho, but as it turns out there wasn’t any particular hurry about it.

Granted, under the rules of current political discourse, when a politician expresses a position too subtle for reporters to easily grasp it (which is to say, more subtle than a punch in the nose) and which is therefore misrepresented by them, the fault is held to lie with the candidate. I accept that.

But really and truly, what John Kerry has said about Iraq isn’t all that obscure.

It rests on one simple distinction: between the necessity (or at least the value) of getting rid of Saddam Hussein on the one hand and the urgency of doing so in the spring of 2003 on the other.

The only way we and the rest of the world managed to figure out to keep Saddam Hussein from building weapons of mass destruction was to subject Iraq to economic sanctions so damaging that, once the Ba’athists had finished implementing them, thousands of children starved to death, or died of less spectacular forms of malnutrition, each month. That protected us, but it was pretty tough on the children.

The only way to end the sanctions without having the WMD acquisition program start up again was to change the regime. I have seen no serious argument that the human cost to Iraq of war, occupation, and rebellion approaches the cost of the sanctions program. So getting rid of that regime — assuming always that it turns out to be possible to replace it with something less horrible — was a worthy goal, and a goal worthy of fighting a war over.

It would have been better to have fought that war with more international support. It is possible, though not certain, that waiting until the following fall or spring rather than invading in the spring of ’03 would have produced more support for what eventually had to be done. It is certain that waiting would have permitted better planning for the occupation, somewhat reducing the risk of “catastrophic success,” though admittedly it is less than certain that the Bush Administration would have taken advantage of that opportunity.

However, if Saddam Hussein had, in fact, been actively involved in acquiring biological or nuclear weapons capabilities, on a timeline that we couldn’t confidently assess, then waiting might have been disastrous. Given the choice between fighting Iraq before it was armed with deliverable biological or nuclear weapons and fighting after it was so armed, the choice was easy. That was the urgency that alone could have justified attacking in the spring of 2003, with a small coalition and only the barest fig-leaf of legal justification.

As it turns out, the Administration’s insistence that there was such urgency turned out to be based on misinformation (perhaps disinformation from Iran) and from a negligent or intentional misreading of what information was available.

There is, then, no inconsistency in saying both (1) that changing regimes in Iraq was a valid goal and (2) that waging war when and as we did was imprudent.

As things have worked out, the belief of experts such as Rand Beers and Richard Clarke that invading Iraq in the spring of 2003 would make the United States less secure, rather than more secure, from Islamist terrorism seems to have been the correct belief. If some of the forces and resources used to invade Iraq had instead been employed in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden might have been captured, and the current Afghani regime might not be seeking a truce with the Taliban. It is certainly true that the utter fecklessness with which the occupation was planned and carried out has weakened us and strengthened our enemies.

So I see no inconsistency between having voted to authorize the President to use force as necessary to defend the country and asserting now that the war in Iraq, as actually fought, was the wrong war in the wrong place and at the wrong time. As it turns out — though I did not think so at the time — the right place to be fighting in the spring of 2003 was Afghanistan, and the right time to fight in Iraq was six months or a year later.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com