The Fantastic Illusions of Victor Davis Hanson

Even though he is only in his early fifties, Victor Davis Hanson may want to consider an early retirement, if this is the best defense of the Iraq war that he can muster. Hanson employs a counter-factual news report from Iraq in the present to show readers what an awful place it would be and how grave a threat it would pose to the United States if the United States had not invaded in March 2003. The piece is filled with factual errors, non sequiturs, and several irrelevant truths, and this article will expose these faults.

Hanson begins by informing readers of a high-profile interview of Saddam Hussein by Dan Rather, whose continued presence in the media seems to be one of Hanson's major gripes with his hypothetical world:

Among the more tense moments of the Rather interview was Saddam's insistence that Iran's nuclear program demanded an "Arab response." The Iraqi leader also promised to increase his bounties to suicide bombers on the West Bank to $40,000 per family, and planned to expand the program to include martyrs who joined the Taliban resistance. CBS's Rather grimaced, "I guess that $70-a-barrel oil give you a pretty wide berth, Mr. President."

I wonder if Hanson has ever considered the idea that having the U.S. military largely tied up in Iraq has emboldened Iran in its quest for nuclear power. Regardless, the possibility that Saddam Hussein might have, someday, thought about re-starting his nuclear program is hardly a casus belli or even a matter for serious concern. And while it is true that Hussein was paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, I fail to see how this presents a danger to American security. Nor does it seem plausible that Hussein would have sponsored direct attacks against American soldiers in Afghanistan; American troops had occupied Afghanistan for over a year before the invasion of Iraq without being attacked by Hussein-sponsored suicide bombers, but I suppose that is one of the advantages of making up a counter-factual world: you can posit any absurdity you desire and present it as if it was certain to become fact.

Hanson's next two sections, on terrorist activity in Iraq and the no-fly zones respectively, are easily the most hilarious in the article. Appropriating the voice of Condoleezza Rice, Hanson writes:

It is bad enough that we know Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas reside in Baghdad, but Saddam is also openly harboring Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ahmed Hikmat Shakir who were connected to the plot in 1993 to blow up the World Trade Center and other anti-American terrorism. This is intolerable after 9/11. Now we find out that this al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who fled our forces in Afghanistan is also with Saddam. And al Qaeda's affiliated Ansar al-Islam is openly operating in Kurdistan with Saddam's approval.

Let's start where Hanson's point is strongest: Abdul Rahman Yasin and Abu Abbas. Yasin was involved with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and he later fled to Iraq, where Hussein claimed to have him in prison shortly before the invasion. It stands to reason that Saddam's claim was spurious, but the fact remains that Yasin is still at large and believed to be in Iraq, so the invasion didn't achieve much on that front.

Hanson fares somewhat better concerning Abu Abbas. Abbas founded the Palestinian Liberation Front, a terrorist group most infamous for hijacking the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and killing Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish American. Certainly, the American government had a legitimate reason to capture Abbas, which they did on April 16, 2003, but it is entirely disproportionate to use war as a means of apprehending him. Furthermore, by the time of his capture Abbas was an advocate of the peace process, and he died of natural causes in American custody on March 9, 2004, suggesting that he probably would not be around today whether or not the American government had invaded Iraq.

On the issue of Zarqawi: it may shock Hanson to learn that Zarqawi is still operating in the real Iraq as well as his imaginary one. To make matters worse, he is not only fighting against secularist Iraqis, but also American troops and civilians, sometimes brutally sawing off their heads, so that seems like an absolute strike against the war. As Hanson notes, Ansar al-Islam, the terrorist group Zarqawi was said to have led before the invasion, operated in Kurdistan, an area where Saddam had no power because of the no-fly zones, and if the goal was eliminating Ansar al-Islam, the United States government could have bombed the group's bases without invading Iraq. However, that fact is not terribly significant. What is more significant is the degree to which the threat from Ansar al-Islam was overblown. From the October 16, 2003 Christian Science Monitor:

But the picture now emerging shows, too, how Washington exaggerated aspects of the threat from the 600 to 800 Ansar members.

Ansar was once part of a long-term Al Qaeda dream to spread Islamic rule from Afghanistan to Kurdistan and beyond. But that idea was embryonic at best, and when US forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, Al Qaeda support for Ansar dried up.

And despite the later arrival of some Afghan veterans and Arab fighters – and a new influx of donor cash – Ansar for 1 1/2 years was isolated, manipulated by both Iraq and Iran, and locked in stalemate with far superior Kurdish forces. Its “poison factory” proved primitive; nothing but substances commonly used to kill rodents were found there.

“Don’t make Ansar that big – we make them great, and they are nothing, just terrorists,” says Dana Ahmed Majid, the PUK security chief.

Finally, Ansar al-Islam was badly outmanned and outgunned by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Ahmed Hikmat Shakir is also not the person that Hanson presents him as. Juan Cole has shown that this alleged Saddam-al-Qaeda connection is actually a case of mistaken identity. There is an al-Qaeda operative at one time based in Malaysia named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, and there is also a former Lieutenant Colonel who served under Saddam named Hikmat Shakir Ahmad. The two do not even share a familial name, but because most people in the government don't understand how Arabic names work, they screwed up and thought them to be one person.

And, lest I forget, Abu Nidal, founder of the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, has been dead since August 2002, possibly killed by Iraqi intelligence, so it seems unlikely that he would have presented a threat to anyone, even absent the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The embarrassing statements of Hanson's last paragraph are nothing compared to the problems he asserts the no-fly zones would create by October of 2005:

Military officials reacted to Sec. Rice's warnings with some skepticism. An unnamed Air Force general added, "Holy Cow, we are up to a half-million of these sorties, going on 15 years now. At some point, we have to ask whether or not it is worth trying to take away 2/3s of the guy's air space. When does it all end?" Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni who oversaw Operation Desert Fox seven years ago on Saddam's weapons' installations, warned, "We have no idea what he had, what we hit, what is left. As I said earlier, after the 1998 raid we took out 100 targets, killed maybe 2,000 Iraqis, and struck 85 percent of the WMD operations, but who knows what's there now?

But aren't all the hypothetical sorties insignificant compared to the real daily patrols of almost 140,000 occupying soldiers? The GIs in Iraq now are far more numerous and in much greater danger than the men who enforced the no-fly zones. Also, since Hanson raises his name, I wonder what he thinks about Anthony Zinni's early misgivings about the invasion of Iraq. Hanson's last sentence is especially puzzling considering the American government has found no WMD programs in Iraq. Of course, I don't know how loosely Hanson is defining the term "operations."

Next, Hanson employs the voice of current Iraqi President and former PUK leader Jalal Talabani to argue for the necessity of no-fly zones to protect the Kurds from Saddam. Certainly if the no-fly zones disappeared while Saddam was still in power, he may have had an opportunity to exact some kind of revenge from the Kurds and Shia, but how this fact justifies the invasion of Iraq Hanson does not explain. He implicitly admits that the no-fly zones were successful at protecting the Kurds and Shia from Saddam, so why was further escalation necessary to carry out the task?

Hanson quickly directs his attention to international scandal by informing readers that in his fantasy world Germany, France, and the U.N. would all still be profiting from oil in Iraq, but is this one of the worst things that could have happened? More oil would be pumped, and the hands of more bureaucrats and politicians would be greased; this situation always arises whenever a prohibition (sanctions) is enacted, and a war is typically not required to end it. In this case, had the U.N. dropped the sanctions on Iraq, corrupt dealings would have ceased, being replaced by legal ones, and, as Hanson mentions later, Lord only knows how many Iraqis would not have hypothetically died of starvation by 2005.

Turning to the imagined domestic scene, Hanson argues that some prominent Democratic senatorsu2014Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerryu2014and the conservative Project For The New American Century (PNAC) would all be clamoring for Bush to topple Hussein's regime. The proper response to this line of thought is "so what?" Senators, Democrat or Republican, are mostly hacks who will do anything to get re-elected. What relevance does their hackery have on the justification for the Iraq war? (I also consider this point sufficient to deal with Hanson's hypothetical remarks by British MP George Galloway.) Similarly, the people represented by PNAC argued for the overthrow of Saddam since the Clinton Administration; would years of persistence on their part somehow justify a formerly unjust war?

Hanson proceeds to argue that without the war in Iraq other triumphs for the United States and freedom abroad, namely the disarming of Libya, withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and some stirrings of democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not have occurred. Just for the sake of argument, I will not challenge Hanson's speculations, and instead I ask how much any of these things matter.

Given that Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi had become comparatively docile over the last fifteen years the danger he posed to the United States, even if armed with WMD, is questionable. However, with weapons any person is more of a potential threat than without them. So, of what exactly did Qaddafi's WMD program consist? A State Department document verifying the dismantling of Libya's WMD program listed its primary components:

First was the effort to remove some of the most dangerous materials, including nuclear weapons design documents, uranium hexafluoride, centrifuges and equipment. Also, parts from Libya’s SCUD-C missiles were removed to make them inoperable. Libya provided details on a range of its missile research and development activities as well.

In the second phase, American and British workers removed remaining elements of Libya’s WMD and missile programs, including 3,000 chemical munitions, 1,000-plus metric tons of nuclear equipment, SCUD-C missiles, missile launchers, and 15-plus kilograms of fresh high-enriched uranium nuclear reactor fuel.

The crux of any weapons program is the missile capability to launch the weapons at long ranges. Libya possessed Scud-C missiles which have a maximum range of 600 kilometers or about 375 miles, hardly anything that could have threatened the United States. I am not denying that the end of Libya's weapons program is a good event, but if the only reason it came about was the war in Iraq, the price was far too high.

With regards to democratic movements in the Middle East, the issue is cloudier. Certainly the absence of Syrian troops in Lebanon is all to the good, but it is far from clear that Hezbollah and other religious radicals won't end up being the biggest winners of the Cedar Revolution. Likewise, local elections in Saudi Arabia proved to be to the advantage of Islamists, and although the Egyptian elections allowed candidates other than President Hosni Mubarak, they remained a sham. Mubarak still rigged the system in his favor because he knows that in any fair Egyptian election, Islamists would likely crush him and any Egyptian liberals who ran. At the very least, it seems premature to celebrate these events as great accomplishments of the war in Iraq.

Finally putting aside Hanson's rhetorically useful, counter-factual world, we can look at the very real costs of the war: tens of thousands of Iraqis and almost 2,000 American soldiers have been killed so far, with no peaceful end in sight; nearly 200 billion dollars have been spent, but Iraq is still falling apart; the formerly somewhat tolerant Iraq seems to be becoming a strictly Islamic country, with Islamic terrorists driving out the ancient Christian population and enforcing Islamic law on the streets of major Iraqi cities like Basra. The fact that these costs have exceeded any real benefits of the war is evident in the fact that Hanson employs a fictional world of his own design; he knows the truth is not nearly as kind to his position.

October 8, 2005