The Iraq Debate: The War Was Just

This is the first round of a 4 part debate between Robert R. Reilly and Russell Shaw on the question, “Was the Iraq war just?”


Saddam Hussein’s regime was evil and it threatened vital U.S. national security interests. Its extirpation achieved a great good, the final accomplishment of which is still in the balance as our troops try to achieve order in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a just war by every criterion of this hallowed teaching (though adhering to its tenets does not guarantee success). I believed this prior to the 2003 invasion, and I still believe it today. (I should disclose that I participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Defense Department civilian accompanying a military force in the spring of 2003.)

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

There is only space here to address several aspects of the just war criteria — whether the United States had the legal authority to wage the war, whether all alternatives to it had been exhausted, and whether the cause for which it was fought was just.

Certainly, the United States had the lawful authority to wage this war, as it was the primary signatory to the agreement to end the First Gulf War in 1991. As a signatory, it had a responsibility to see to the enforcement of that agreement. Saddam Hussein was in violation of its major provisions, as well as those of the subsequent 15 mandatory UN Security Council Resolutions for which the United States voted. Among these violations were: Saddam’s repression of the Iraqi people; his refusal to account for Gulf War prisoners; his refusal to return stolen property; his support for international terrorism; his efforts to circumvent economic sanctions; his refusal to account for weapons of mass destruction and to cease his development of WMD.

Some seemed to think that ignoring this wholesale violation of the cease-fire agreement and the UN resolutions was preferable to the war that was necessary to enforce them. However, they never accounted for the costs of this neglect or suggested an alternative way to end the Gulf War. I keenly recall the Arabic inscription that I saw on the left side of the entrance to the Republican Place in Baghdad when I entered it. It proclaimed that the palace, seriously damaged in the First Gulf War, had been rebuilt and trebled in size in celebration of Saddam’s “victory over the United States and coalition forces” in 1991. In the face of Iraq’s military defeat at that time, the claim may seem absurd but, in fact, Saddam had won, or was winning. In 2003, three American presidents later, Saddam was still in power, more than twelve years after his “defeat.” During that period, everyone in the Middle East, and beyond, could in a sense read that inscription.

The United States was in danger of politically losing a war it had militarily won, with all the consequences of such a loss in dealing with Iraq and the rest of the world. The world was learning from Saddam that one could defy the United States, the most powerful military force in the world, and not only survive, but succeed. Clearly, for Saddam, the Gulf War was not over. In the three years before the 2003 war, Iraqi forces fired more than 1,600 times upon U.S. and British aircraft in the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq. Those were acts of war.

The UN’s inaction risked its own bankruptcy by failing to confront more than a decade of lies, deceit, and open defiance by Saddam. The unwillingness of others to uphold the principles of international law and order would have in no way absolved the United States of its moral obligations, especially in light of its unique position in the world. It was incumbent upon the United States to lead in this effort, just as it was twelve years earlier when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Only the United States stood between Saddam and the resumption of his megalomaniac plans for a new Babylonian empire, based upon the threat of massive destruction and the political power his control of some 40 percent of the world’s known oil reserves would give him — because only the United States had the means to stop him. Those reserves had almost been within his grasp in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, and there is little doubt from his subsequent behavior that, given the opportunity, he would try for them again.

Had every means short of war been tried to resolve this problem, as is required by just war teaching? It is hard to conceive of what else could have been attempted in the 13 years of efforts to obtain Saddam’s compliance. In fact, a case could be made that it was morally irresponsible to wait as long as we did. Witness the corruption of the UN sanctions program and the harm it did, as well as Saddam’s successful sanctions-busting. It was clear that Saddam offered to let UN inspectors back into Iraq after a four-year absence only because of the credible threat of force against him in late 2002. Absent that threat, there would not have even been the pretense of cooperation.

In terms of jus ad bellum, the only coherent case against the 2003 war would have to claim that the First Gulf War was in violation of just war principles and that, therefore, the armed enforcement of the terms bringing it to a close was also unjust. However, it is hard to find a more blatant case of unjust aggression than Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and of the justness of the cause of those who came to its defense.

Have subsequent events shown that the rationale for the war was wrong? Everything discovered in Iraq after the 2003 war has borne out the justness of the U.S. cause. We now know from captured Iraqi documents that Saddam was training several thousand terrorists a year and hosted some 23 terrorist organizations from around the world. Saddam was and continued to be a state sponsor of international terrorism.

Despite the impression that has seized the popular imagination regarding the failure to find significant stockpiles of WMD, Saddam also maintained his WMD programs until the very end. Dr. David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported to Congress, “We have discovered dozens of WMD related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the UN during the inspections that began in late 2002.” Kay concluded that Saddam had become “even more dangerous” than had been realized. The discovery of more than 500 sarin-filled warheads in 2006, WMD by anyone’s definition, was met with a yawn when it was announced by Congressman Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. This vital information simply did not fit with the urban legend that Saddam had no WMD.

The hardest evidence to examine is the record of Saddam’s horrifically brutal treatment of his own people. I put together the DVD of the Iraqi films of torture and execution carried out by his regime. Nothing in the Holocaust Museum in Washington exceeds the sickening spectacle. It is a naked look into the face of evil.

As Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said, “Iraq was a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave underground.” No one would know this better than the regional Minister of Human Rights in Irbil, my friend Mohammed Ihsan, who has visited more of the 260 mass graves in Iraq than anyone else. In a remark worthy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he said of the Iraqi regime: “It gave itself the right to kill the innocent. And this way of thinking is scarier than the killing itself.”

One of the first radio programs we began in Iraq was “At Last, I Speak,” in which Iraqis for the first time had a chance to tell what was done to them under Saddam. They had difficulty doing so. While attempting to give their testimony, they all broke down. This was a regime evil in principle. I saw its practice, and would not wish the experience on anyone.

Here, however, is a brief excerpt from a transcript of a captured tape of Saddam speaking to his ministers about the occupation of Kuwait. Saddam: “I ask the security services to kill any rebellious individuals they find, their children as well.” Minister: “Your Excellency, what if we find that some of the rebellious ones have little brothers and sisters that may one day avenge them?” Saddam: “Kill them all.” And they did.

The magnitude of what took place has been captured in a French book, Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein, with an introduction by the current French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, giving an account of the some one million Iraqi victims. This is important information because the jus in bello requirements of just war caution us not to create an evil greater than the one we set out to cure. This principle of proportionality can only be applied by those who know the magnitude of the evil we overthrew, and who therefore can keep in perspective the terrible difficulties and tragedies that have occurred since 2003, for which we are to some degree at fault.

However, it was a just cause to liberate Iraq, and we are still endeavoring to do so, despite our serious fumbles. The moral nature of our endeavor was acknowledged early on by some of the Iraqi Church leaders. Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah said: “I believe that what the Americans did was truly a liberation, the liberation of Iraq. And on this basis the new Iraq shall emerge.” The Chaldean Bishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, said in late 2003 that, despite the difficulties the war presented, “the fruit is, in fact, liberation.” And I will never forget a voicemail left on my home answering machine; I wish I had never erased it. It was from Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, recently elevated to cardinal by Benedict XVI. He said, “We love you guys, you freed us.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...