It is too soon to tell if the Iraq war was "worth it." That depends on whether Iraq can make the difficult transition to become a stable democracy and an ally against Islamist extremism, Iran, and terrorist groups. But on balance, the Iraq war was a risk worth taking in view of the dangers inherent in ignoring Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, his serial massacres of his own people, and Iraq's suspected WMD programs.
Although flawed intelligence skewed the perceived threat posed by Saddam's regime, I think that the Bush administration made the correct decision to disarm Iraq and oust Saddam, given the information then available. Although Iraq's missing chemical weapons were never found, Saddam was caught red-handed hiding prohibited missiles and slaughtering his own people, both violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions as well as the ceasefire that ended the 1991 Gulf War.
President Bush was by no means alone in emphasizing the urgent threat posed by Iraq. President Bill Clinton justified a three-day U.S. air offensive against Iraq in December 1998 by warning:
Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors; he will make war on his own people. And mark my words he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.
After 9/11, it would have been even more risky to ignore Saddam's provocations. If he had been left in power, he likely would have provoked yet another war. Saddam had a well-documented thirst for vengeance and a long history of using surrogate terrorist groups against his enemies. His regime even launched a failed assassination plot against former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
Few would argue that removing Saddam was an error. He invaded Iran and Kuwait, used illegal chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds, and ordered the deaths of more people in the Middle East than any leader since the Mongol invasion seven centuries ago.
After Saddam fell, Iran and al Qaeda launched their own wars against the U.S. in Iraq. But if Iraq ultimately becomes a reliable U.S. ally against terrorism and Iran, then the Iraq wars will be worth it.
About James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation
Lawrence J. Korb Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
Daniel J. Gallington Senior Policy and Program Adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute