Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:00 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:00 | SYDNEY

Yes, Saddam blundered, but that no excuse


Hugh White

2 November 2007 12:28

Sam Roggeveen provides a timely reminder that whatever else one feels about the invasion of Iraq, there is no need to feel sorry for Saddam.  However, I’m not sure that Saddam’s undoubted role in creating the conditions for Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 really make much difference to our judgments about the Bush Administration’s decision to invade, or the UK and Australian decisions to support them.

In the end the Coalition leaders can’t shift the blame for their errors onto Saddam.  This is particularly so if, like me, you think that the main errors they made concerned the practicality of the policy, not its legitimacy.  One might be able to argue that Saddam’s refusal to comply with UN demands helps to bolster the argument that the invasion was legitimate, though personally I think it’s a long shot.  But Saddam’s errors cannot in any way offset the mistaken judgments made by Bush, Blair and Howard about the practicality of invasion and regime change as a response to the problems that Saddam’s intransigence posed.  In the judgment of history the impracticality of their plan will weigh more heavily than its illegitimacy.  

To test this judgment, try a couple of quick counterfactuals.  Had things worked out differently, and Iraq now emerged as a stable, unified, pro-Western state enjoying the rule of law and participatory democracy, then few would now worry much about the failure to win a second UNSC resolution back in March 2003.  Alternatively, even if  the UNSC passed a resolution authorising the invasion, then as things stand in Iraq we would still regard the decision as a massive error, and the votes of a few diplomats in New York would not do much to ameliorate the criticism.  Success remains the great legitimiser in strategic affairs.  And conversely, as Talleyrand said, a blunder is worse than a crime. 

 Of course this harsh judgment on the Coalition leaders presupposes that they should have been able to tell in advance that the invasion would fail to create a viable successor to the Baath regime.  Some might say that failure was the result of errors of planning and execution which the leaders could not foresee and for which they cannot be held responsible.  That seems to me too generous, at two levels.  First, if they were not responsible for the implementation of their plan, who was?  I do not think they can shift accountability for an enterprise so vast and important onto their subordinates.  Second, what reason is there to think that even with better planning and execution, the Coalition’s objectives in Iraq would have been met?  Given the scale of the challenges and the resources available to meet them, is there any reason to think that a better plan, better executed, would have made much difference?  I think not.  Iraq was in the end an error of conception, not of execution, and for that error of conception the Coalition’s leaders bear full responsibility.

Photo by Flickr user Real-FrienD, used under a Creative Commons licence.