The White House last week announced that the “intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Many in Congress and throughout the United States believe we should intervene.
The rush to display our military might should be tempered by the lessons of the Iraq War.
On Feb. 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out compelling evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that its president, Saddam Hussein, was preparing to use them. The dictator had uranium for a nuclear bomb. He had warheads and drones packed with biological weapons. Hussein was working with al-Qaeda operatives.
“My colleagues,” Powell told the United Nations, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
All of it was false. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hussein was full of bluster, but he had destroyed weapons of mass destruction years before in response to international sanctions. He was murderous and oppressive and belligerent, but when the United States and a few allies invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, they did so based on false information.
That was the first mistake of the Iraq War.
The second mistake involved estimates of its likely duration and its cost, both in lives and money.
As the administration made the case for war in late 2012, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave the official prediction: ‘‘I can’t say if the use of force would last ﬁve days or ﬁve weeks or ﬁve months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.’’
The last U.S. troops did not leave Iraq until December 2011. Before the withdrawal, almost 4,500 U.S. troops had lost their lives. More than 32,000 were wounded. At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians died in the eight-year conflict.
While White House statements suggest certainty that sarin gas was used on a “small scale” in Syria, many questions remain. The most obvious: Who used it? The Syrian military has stockpiles of sarin, so it is an obvious suspect. Would it risk an international invasion to use the toxin on a small scale? As one expert put it, that’s like using a nuclear missile with an acorn-sized warhead.
On the other hand, opposition groups — including some with al-Qaida connections — have every reason to invoke U.S. might in the effort to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Even Syrian doctors, horrified at the deaths caused by conventional weapons, have an incentive to encourage U.S. involvement.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria is real. If conclusive evidence emerges that substantial quantities of chemical weapons are being used by the Assad government, the crisis may be such that the U.S. cannot morally wait for an international consensus on military action.
If we learned anything from the Iraq War, though, it is that now is the time for a judicious evaluation of the facts.
It is too late to undo the mistakes of Iraq. It is not too late, however, to learn from them.