I. The Case for Invasion
The Bush administration built a broad domestic coalition and an adequate foreign alliance (more inclusive than the UN-sanctioned effort against North Korea in 1950). It made compelling arguments that in a post 9/11 climate, Saddam Hussein, who otherwise had no connection with 9/11, could no longer be adequately contained with no-fly zones or trusted not to repeat his various genocides and attacks on his neighbors.
At least initially, the professed case for invasion was not just predicated on worries about WMD. It also hinged on moral concerns over the horrific toll that Saddam had taken on his own people. These were crimes, for example, that made the present spectacle in Syria or the recent strife in Libya seem minor in comparison.
The administration won overwhelming bipartisan support in obtaining House and Senate resolutions in October 2002 (unlike Clinton for the Balkan war or Obama for the Libyan bombing). It spent a year trying to persuade the UN (unlike Clinton in 1999, who just bombed without even going to the UN).
While oil made Saddam a threat, the war was not aimed to steal Iraq’s oil, as postwar events proved. Oil was important (e.g., we did not intervene in Rwanda), but largely because it ensured Saddam the revenues to pose a continual threat in the region. Instead, the March 2003 invasion was supposed to correct the failure to remove Saddam in 1991 (cf. the 1998 congressional resolution to liberate Iraq), and would offer a moral improvement over just leaving as we had done in Somalia and after the Soviet expulsion in Afghanistan. We forget now the liberal critique of the 1990s that we were culpable for the rise of the Taliban and Saddam’s survival by soulless “realpolitik” and neglecting human rights.
“Nation-building” was not just some neocon wide-eyed dream (although for some it may well have been that). More likely, it was the last choice to ensure that military force led to something better, a sort of repeat of post-Milosevic Serbia rather than post-Gulf War Iraq. The result was that 70% of the American people and almost the entire liberal media were on board. They would not have been had (a) the Bush administration failed the year before in Afghanistan; (b) not gotten congressional approval; (c) not gone to the UN; (d) promised to leave as soon as removing Saddam or vowed to install a pro-Western strongman; (e) not had allies; or (f) talked of acquiring Iraqi oil.
The Bush administration fixated on WMD — as did those in Congress like a Senator John Kerry or Hillary Clinton — when there were 23 diverse and persuasive congressional writs to remove Saddam, ranging from genocide to sponsorship of terrorism to attempts to kill a former U.S. president. When stockpiles of WMD failed to appear, and when the insurgency gained momentum, the casus belli vanished, although the U.S. Congress obviously was on record that the need to preempt in Iraq vastly transcended the issue of WMD.
Apparently WMD arouses Western publics in a way genocide does not: compare Barack Obama’s quiescence after 70,000 murdered in Syria, a million refugees, and horrific human rights violations with his assurances that Bashar Assad’s WMD usage would be a “red line” and “game changer.”