Was the Iraq War Right?


BOB ABERNETHY, host: With President Obama’s formal announcement that combat operations in Iraq are over, two assessments of whether the war was the right thing to do. William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, also in Washington. Welcome to you both. Michael, was the Iraq war the right thing to do?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, Bob, you know the British prime minister, Tony Blair, has just come out with an autobiography, and he makes the point in there that the removal of Saddam Hussain from power was a great good. I agree with Tony Blair that the Iraq war is tragic. It has been, in the loss of life—that’s been sad. It was the right thing to do.

ABERNETHY: If you had known in 2003 what the costs would be, the costs in lives and money and everything, would you still have favored it?

CROMARTIE: Bob, the cost of lives and money and—every war is a miserable cost, painful cost, and I think looking back on any war you want to say is any war worth it after we see what the results are? That’s can’t be considered without considering what was going on before—what Saddam did to his own people, what he did to his neighbors, the threat that he posed to so many parts of the world.

ABERNETHY: Bill, was it worth it?

WILLIAM GALSTON: I don’t think so, and equally important, a large majority of the American people don’t think so either, and in a democracy that’s something that needs to be taken into account. It’s not dispositive, but it needs to be taken into account. And one of the principles of just war theory is the principle of proportionality—that even if it’s justified the good that is done has to exceed the harm. There’s also reason to believe that the war did not satisfy the requirements of just war theory. It was not a defensive war. It was not a preemptive war. It was a preventive war, which is very hard to justify, and the administration’s case for preventive war did not pass muster.

ABERNETHY: So primarily on the consequences you think it was not right to do.

post01-iraqrightGALSTON: No, there are two reasons. First of all the prudential reasons, that is, the good achieved, and there was some genuine good achieved, was outweighed by the harm done. But also on the moral and legal plane, if you take just war theory seriously and apply it to this case, I’m afraid it doesn’t pass.

CROMARTIE: But let’s look for a moment, Bob, at the good achieved, if I could in response to Bill.

ABERNETHY: We don’t know what the good was, do we, yet?

CROMARTIE: Well I can give you some right now. One of the goods is that we now have an ally that doesn’t support the war on terror but in fact supports us. We know have a country that’s not invading its neighbors. We now have a country that’s not brutalizing its own people. We have a country that has the potential of being something of a democracy in the region, so we now have an ally in the region that we didn’t have before. We’ve also removed a man who brutalized his own people and he brutalized his neighbors.

ABERNETHY: What do you think the lessons are to be drawn? Bill?

GALSTON: Well, one lesson is a lesson that General Petraeus has articulated recently, as have a number of people around him, including General Odierno, namely that we didn’t know what we were getting into and we had a duty to know more about the country, the society, the history, the complexities, the pitfalls, and General Petraeus has taken that lesson with him into Afghanistan, I hope, with better results. And another lesson I think we had better draw is the same one that the drafters of the Declaration of Independence understood full well, that is to say there is a decent respect owed to the opinions of mankind, and I’m afraid that we did not take that adequately seriously in the run-up to the war or the conduct of the war, and I think we’ve paid a huge price for that.

ABERNETHY: Michael, the lessons for you?

post02-iraqrightCROMARTIE: Well, one of the lessons is the mistakes that were made going in. Remember Secretary Rumsfeld said we needed to have a light footprint, and I don’t think even the surge would have been necessary if we had not done a better job of securing the country earlier. Rumsfeld’s view was that we would go in lightly and leave quickly. Of course, none of that’s happened and I think that was a big mistake.

ABERNETHY: Tell me what you think about the possibility of other situations where we think the head of a country is dangerous. Do we—

CROMARTIE: There’s still some of those around, by the way.

ABERNETHY: Do we still have the right to send in our troops, to invade, to kill the leader? Do we have that right?

CROMARTIE: No, of course not, of course not, and if you will remember, and as Bill of course recalls, the amount of times we went to the UN before we went into Iraq, and the amount of resolutions that were passed, and the amount of times that Saddam ignored all of them. No, I don’t think we have the right to just go and fly into a country without first going by every international—passing every international legal agreement that we can before we do so.



ABERNETHY: Preventive war?

GALSTON: Preventive war. First of all, I think we have relearned what we should have known from the beginning, that is, a preventive war is the most difficult war to justify, and you’d better be darn sure of your facts and your grounds before entering into it. But the second lesson to be learned is that the argument that good will be done if we perform act “x” is an inadequate argument on its face for two reasons—first of all, because there’s also the other side of the balance to be taken into account. You need to do double-entry bookkeeping. And secondly because not everything that is productive of good is justified. There’s lots of good that we could do potentially that we are estopped from doing because there are norms that prevent us from doing it, and there’s a reason why those norms exist, and so arguments of the form “the world is a better place because of x” are not adequate.

ABERNETHY: Michael, quickly, you served for many years on the—

CROMARTIE: —the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

ABERNETHY: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom. What’s the state of religious freedom in Iraq now? What’s the state particularly for Christians?

CROMARTIE: It’s very bad in Iraq right now. Christians have fled Iraq. Sectarian violence toward Christians and toward churches is in a miserable state, and that’s one of the areas where the Iraqi government needs to do a better job of insuring protection of all religious minorities in Iraq, because it’s not a good situation.

  • David Peters

    Great comments and thoughts. The final comment is what haunts me the most. Our country makes a well intentioned and controversial guess that we can improve the world through preemptive violence in Iraq. Then we leave a country now “liberated” by a “Christian” (the US) nation that is now far more hostel to Christians than it has ever been. Christians and other minority religions had a reasonably peaceful existence for many decades in Iraq. As the US took out Saddam we also remove this protection. We fixed one problem but created possibly a much bigger one. This is one of the centuries old lessons of war and violence that mankind never seems to learn.

  • George Stanciu

    If I remember correctly, the argument for Iraq II, was Saddam Hussain was developing weapons of mass destruction, not that he was a bad guy who had to be removed as head of state. The Bush administration shifted the reason for Iraq II, as Tony Blair has.

    “‘Shock and Awe” failed; and nation-building apparently first required nation-destroying.

    George Stanciu

  • Rajinder Nijjhar


    Iraq War was to destroy Iraq as a threat to Israel and not for oil. This was the first attack of aggressors and this year around 21 December, Israel is supposed to attack a country making Atomic Bombs. That would be the second and in 2012 would be the Atomic War ending this Age.



  • Dseigler2
  • Gerald Shenk

    It is very instructive to go back and compare the predictions about the war from divergent perspectives leading up to the decision in attack and invade Iraq in 2003. The folks who want to be known as realists made the most rosy and optimistic predictions. Persons whose ideals and commitments go against violence-based solutions seem to have had the most sober and realistic assessments.

  • Ken Naugle

    Answer the question “Do the ends justify the means?”
    If you say YES!, then the Iraq war may be justified. But when you look right at it, we could not believe that there was any way Saddam had no WMD. The information was right there for us to look at. We had men on the ground looking for it, and finding nothing. Yet we would not believe it.

    In the end, I believe the ends do not justify the means. Right is right, Wrong is wrong, and we were wrong to invade Iraq. We should ‘fess up to that fact and move on. Worse we should admit to the idea that we bought into the idea that we could impose all that is good and righteous about America on the rest of the world by force. How wrong we were on that one as well.

  • Ronny Calling

    That’s a very good point. Are all the american empire wars legal?.
    Killing inocent people is a christian american way of life?
    Opressing nations like the american empire does, is it the christian way of love?
    Are the americans blind? What do they mean with been christian?
    Is God blessing or cursing America?
    Why the USA arer not mentioned in the Bible, since it is the most powerfull military empire of the world?
    Think about that. Answer it, please!

  • DJ Seifert

    Religious traditions who take their social ethic seriously (e.g., peace-making) would better serve the fallen world (for which I/we are all a part of) and respond to the “we” in the call to war by the nation state by asking them, “What do you mean by ‘we’?” This “we” is something that genuinely religious (I being Christian) are always going to have to ask themselves. To illustrate, Stanley Hauerwas tells the story of Tonto and the Lone Ranger being surrounded by a hostile Native American tribe with bows and arrows pulled back ready to attack. They’re surrounded, and the Lone Ranger looks at Tonto, and says, “Boy, we’re sure in a fix aren’t we Tonto?” To which Tonto says, “What do you mean we, white man?”

  • Bob Winners

    If you are ‘conventional energy’ person, then the war was possibly worth it. In 5 years or 10, Iraq may be producing oil at a rate equal to Saudi Arabia.

    If you are a human being with any sense of morality, then the death and destruction cause by our invasion of a sovereign country on trumped up charges is an abysmal failure of American foreign policy.