The war in Iraq was justified – not because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in 2003 – but because he had them in the past and used them. He tried to build a nuclear reactor, Osirak, with military potential, thankfully destroyed by Israel in 1981; and he used poison gas against both his own Kurdish population and Iran. He attacked four countries – Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – and for more than a decade flouted a dozen UN Security Council resolutions. He was a proven danger to his neighbors, and his nonconventional ambitions would have further destabilized the region. Anyone who holds that an aggressive dictator like Saddam should not have been taken out by the international community would also have to argue that toppling Hitler in 1938, had such an opportunity presented itself, would have been wrong.
Yet led by a naive, almost Wilsonian ideology about the immediate and universal applicability of democracy, the U.S. got itself into hot water by maintaining that absent Saddam, democracy in Iraq would flower overnight. With democracy identified with a foreign occupying power, to imagine a quick transition in Iraq was utopian. Add to this the internal ethnic and religious fissures in Iraq, which make the very formation of a non-repressive nation-state extremely difficult. Then recall that democracy has no legitimate anchoring in any Arab society, hence no role model. Whoever becomes the next American president will be unsuccessful in creating a democracy in Iraq. Yet none of this should detract from the justification of the war. The writer, Shlomo Avineri, a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.