Should We Invade Iraq?

Should we go to war with Iraq? A lot of people in the UK clearly think not, judging from the size of today's anti-War march, but a number of influential people think that we should. One advantage of the web is that I can nail my colours to the mast without actually influencing anyone, as no-one is going to read an opinion piece by a nobody, so here goes.

The first question to be answered concerns the reason for going to war. Different reasons require different kinds of justification. For example, the last time we went to war with Iraq it was to drive the Iraqi army out of a country it had invaded without provocation. The justification required there was that a country had been invaded and wanted help to drive the invaders out. This time, we are proposing to invade Iraq, so that justification won't work. What are our reasons?

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The most commonly offered justification is that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and is willing to use them. The latter claim, that he would use them if he had them, seems quite plausible. He hasn't been remarkable for his restraint, and he has plenty of reasons to think that he can't make the US government any more hostile. The only question might be over timing.

The first question is rather more up in the air. The US government insists that he has them, and that he poses a real threat. Many other countries aren't so sure. Personally, I'm agnostic. Weapons of mass destruction are relatively easy to make and not very big once made, so the inspectors could easily have been misled so far. On the other hand, Iraq has not exactly had good conditions for military research over the last decade. Further, the willingness to invade tends to suggest that the US military doesn't think President Hussein actually has such weapons; contrast the attitude to North Korea, which, at the very least, has a large, battle-ready army. If Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, it seems certain that they would use them against invading US forces.

But we can avoid that question. Let us suppose that President Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction: chemical warheads, for example. Let us further suppose that he is in contact with Islamist terrorists who are willing to transport those weapons to the US or UK, and use them. This is the worst case scenario, as put forward by the US government. Would it justify war?

I don't think that the answer is clear. A chemical weapon going off in London or Los Angeles would kill a lot of people, certainly. It would have a good chance of killing friends of mine, too. However, an invasion of Iraq will also kill a lot of people. None of them are likely to be friends of mine, but that doesn't seem terribly morally relevant.

The question has to be, which would kill more people: the terrorist attack, or the invasion? And we must take into account that the terrorist attack could be stopped without casualties. The US and UK counter-terrorism forces are not incompetent, and doubtless do stop a significant number of attacks. An attack that required smuggling a chemical weapon from Iraq would be rather easier to discover and stop than one involving a home-made bomb, as well.

Consider further that there is an alternative to war. Sending in lots of weapon inspectors, backed up with such military force as proves necessary, seems likely to be equally, if not more, effective. In the chaos of war, it wouldn't be hard to slip a truck full of chemical weapons out of the country. In a country at peace but constantly monitored by spy planes, roaming inspectors, and border guards, it would be a lot harder. Give the inspectors enough muscle, and it's going to be very hard to hide anything large from them. Anything small could be hidden from an invading army, as well.

Indeed, looked at from this perspective, the effectiveness of a war is rather dubious. Surely President Hussein would put his weapons on the first terrorist to the US if he was invaded, and history suggests that invading armies are very bad at stopping smugglers.

So, my conclusion here is that, no matter what the truth of the matter, weapons of mass destruction cannot justify a war.

The Evil Tyrant

A second argument is that Saddam Hussein is an evil tyrant, and that we should liberate the Iraqis.

There is a liberal red herring on this issue that needs to be disposed of first. It is true that President Hussein is not a noticeably worse evil tyrant than a number of other world leaders. Nevertheless, that is no reason not to remove him if that can be justified. At the moment, the only country it might be possible to gather an international consensus on is Iraq. If Hussein is the only evil tyrant whom it is politically possible to remove, then removing only him is justifiable.

So, the question is not whether Iraq is better or worse than its neighbours. The question is whether President Hussein's record justifies removing him. It seems clear that he is an evil tyrant. The reports could all be cunning propaganda, but that seems unlikely, given how many of them there are and the range of organisations reporting them. It also seems clear that even a random change of government is likely to improve the lot of the Iraqi people; Saddam Hussein is so bad that almost any replacement would be better.

An invasion to replace Hussein would kill just as many people as an invasion to find weapons of mass destruction. However, in this case the people would be dying for their own liberty. Precious little comfort for the bereaved, but it does make a moral difference. Further, it seems extremely likely that a US-led invasion could topple the Iraqi president. He, personally, might escape, but he couldn't hold onto power.

And, unlike the case of the weapons, there isn't an obvious alternative to invasion. It would be possible, in principle, to encourage internal dissent, and indeed the northern Kurds seem to be on the verge of establishing an effectively independent state. However, an internal revolt would be at least as destructive as an invasion, and probably less effective. A rebellion backed up by the US army is quite likely to succeed, after all.

I have two worries about this. The first is pragmatic. The record in Afghanistan does not inspire confidence that the US and UK will do the work necessary to get a better successor regime installed in Iraq. That takes time and resources. The US did do it in Germany and Japan after WWII, but given that that created two major economic competitors they might be reluctant to do it to a state sitting on major oil reserves. And, anyway, that was fifty years ago, under a very different US government.

The second worry is more basically moral. Wars are very, very bad. Worse than most dictators could possibly be. It might be better for the Iraqi people to wait until Hussein goes through natural causes than to face an invasion and the uncertain aftermath thereof.

This cause might actually justify a war. But the noises that the US and UK governments are making do not make me any happier. They aren't talking about minimising the risk to Iraqi civilians or making it as easy as possible for the armed forces to surrender. They aren't talking much about rebuilding Iraq afterwards. Instead, they are talking about weapons of mass destruction. If they go into the war on that justification, I fear that they will not do what is necessary to justify the war in terms of toppling a tyrant.

One thing does seem to be clear, however. This justification requires UN backing. Countries cannot be allowed to make unilateral decisions as to who is a tyrant. The UN is the mechanism that the world has for making these sorts of decisions, and it should be used for that. So far, President Bush is sticking to the UN line, albeit with signs of impatience. This is good.


Invading to get control of Iraq's oil reserves can in no way justify a war. The gas-guzzling lifestyle of the US cannot excuse the deaths of thousands and the other damage that would be caused to Iraq, especially as the US consumption of oil is itself morally unacceptable.

It would be nice to see President Bush and Prime Minister Blair passing laws banning US and British oil companies from any involvement with Iraqi oil for ten years after any war. This would make it clear to the world that the war was not motivated by a desire for oil, and make the protestations of altruism more convincing.

I don't believe that either of them will do that, though.


The other issue that is raised is that Saddam Hussein tried to have George Bush Senior killed.

This does not justify a war. Be serious.


Oil and revenge have no moral force as a justification for war. History suggests that they may be very important reasons, but if so this war would be as immoral as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

Weapons of mass destruction cannot justify a war, for two reasons. First, a war is unlikely to be an effective way of keeping them out of the hands of terrorists anyway. Second, a war would likely do more damage than the weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the damage would be done to Iraqis rather than Britons is not morally relevant.

A campaign to free the Iraqi people from tyranny might justify a war, but only with UN backing and with an extreme degree of care to avoid unnecessary Iraqi casualties, military or civilian. A clear commitment to helping build a better state thereafter would also help. None of these factors are much in evidence at the moment.

Over all, then, I cannot, at present, see a sufficient justification for invading Iraq.

David Chart
15 February 2003
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