- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

President Bush took the United States to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — chemical, biological or nuclear arms that can be used to kill on a grand scale. All agree that Saddam Hussein had such weapons at the time of the first Gulf War, and that he failed to prove that this arsenal had been destroyed.

That proof was the price of a cease fire in 1991, and Saddam never paid it. As a legal and policy matter, this fact alone fully justified the United States taking military action against him in 2003. America was not required to live with the risk that Saddam would use these weapons against itself or its allies. There was, however, a second and equally compelling policy justification for destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime — to prove beyond doubt that an international outlaw could not defy American power, and get away with it.

There is little doubt, of course, that Saddam did exactly that for more than ten years; and he made much of this success in his own appeals to the “Arab street.” Not only did he mislead and thwart the United Nations inspectors, who were supposed to oversee his disarmament, he periodically intimidated them and — in the end — engineered their withdrawal altogether. By 1998, sympathetic states like France, Russia and China (all of which exercise a veto on the U.N. Security Council), were calling for a significant relaxation — in addition to the United Nations’ spectacularly corrupt “oil-for-food” program — of the international sanctions that were supposed to contain Saddam. When the Bush administration tried to strengthen the U.N.’s measures against Iraq in 2001, introducing a system of “smart sanctions” targeted more directly at Saddam, France and Russia again resisted, and effectively killed the effort. By 2003, the “sanctions regime” was on life-support.

Whatever effect America’s failure to force Saddam’s compliance may have had on ordinary men and women in the Arab world, it cannot have been lost on one highly important observer of Middle Eastern affairs — Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden famously described the United States as a “weak horse” — an easy mark that could be driven from Islamic lands, and even to social and political collapse, if hit hard enough — and there can have been no better proof of this theorem than the survival, and evident recovery, of Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden and his Islamicists may well have despised the butcher of Baghdad for his “secular” approach to dictatorship, but his example surely showed them the way.

As a result, humbling Saddam was critical to the recovery of American prestige and credibility in a region where such things matter and this, in turn, is a necessary pre-condition to ultimate victory in the war on terror. It is true, of course, that considerations of national prestige or honor have long been discredited as acceptable causes for war in the West. This is understandable, given the costs and carnage of World War I. The outbreak of that conflict can, in no small part, be traced to a desire by Europe’s “Great Powers” to avoid being outmaneuvered, and/or humiliated, following the murder of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and the result was an unprecedented disaster for the entire Continent.

Europe’s experience, however, was not shared by most of the Islamic world. Across the great arc of territory from North Africa to Indonesia, where Islam is the dominant spiritual, and increasingly political, force, there remain today may highly traditional societies, where personal honor, and unapologetic machismo, continue to matter a very great deal — both in private and public life. Men in many of these countries (from which most of al Qaeda’s leaders and foot soldiers are drawn) would not view Woodrow Wilson’s famous sentiment (expressed during his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to keep the United States out of the Great War), that America was “too proud to fight,” as a noble aspiration. At best, they would view it as idiocy. At worst, it would be considered an indication of rank cowardice.

Obviously, this does not describe the entire Islamic, or Arab, world — not by a long shot. However, the movement away from a culture of “honor” in many Middle Eastern countries remains part and parcel of that very march toward modernity that al Qaeda and its allies are so determined to stop, and roll back. Permitting Saddam to continue his defiance of American power, in the face of Security Council resolutions, threats, and even periodic bombing raids, would simply have reinforced America’s image as weak and decadent, and ripe for the slaughter. This is another very important reason why the war in Iraq was, despite Sen. John Kerry’s claims to the contrary, the right war, in the right place, at the right time.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey are partners in the Washington office of Baker & Hostetler LLP.