The Iraq of Saddam Hussein was also a major supporter of international terrorism, paying a substantial reward to the families of suicide bombers in Israel, as well as generally supplying terrorist organisations in the region. This reflected the extent to which international terrorism (and especially Islamic terrorism) was being facilitated by states. Taliban support for al qaeda in Afghanistan was only the most egregious example of what was (and still is) a major problem of international security.
And then there is the matter of weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that for most of its history the regime of Saddam Hussein had active programmes in all three domains. Chemical weapons in particular were used in the Iran-Iraq war and, as the recent execution of ‘Chemical Ali’ has reminded us, they were also used by the regime against the Iraqi people themselves. To continue with the specific exemplars, IAEA inspectors were astonished to find that in 1991 (after the Gulf War) Iraq was ‘within six months’ of having a nuclear bomb.
The end of the Gulf War, and the confirmation of the extent of Iraq’s WMD activities, were followed by nearly 12 years of sparring between Saddam Hussein and United Nations weapons inspectors culminating in an uneasy hiatus, during which the inspectors remained unsatisfied. The most quoted of these was Hans Blix, who reported (in January 2003) that, ‘Iraq has failed to account for a wide range of chemical and biological weapons’, and that there was ‘strong evidence of anthrax stocks’. The chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, was also in no doubt that Iraq was again working on nuclear weapons and this was also the opinion of various national intelligence agencies, such as those of Germany, UK , United States and even New Zealand (although there were dissenting opinions, even amongst the official inspectorate).
Of course, we now know that such activity and weapon stockpiles as Iraq had retained by March 2003 were vestigial only and, indeed, mainly conceptual, and there was considerable speculation about why that might have been. But the fact is that the intelligence ‘consensus’ at the material time was that there was a continuing threat and, in the light of this, it seems inappropriate to say of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that they ‘lied’ about these matters. As far as the then-current WMD status of Iraq was concerned, they were wrong and, with hindsight, it is clear that Saddam Hussein made a serious mistake in allowing this misperception to persist.
But as indicated earlier, the perception of Iraq as a threat was broader than the specifics of weapon systems. After 9/11 there was also a new emphasis on international terrorism and on the states that were supporting it, and a new determination to act against them. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq may not have had weapons of mass destruction in March 2003 but it had certainly had them at various times before that date and it was not implausible to imagine (the inspection regime having been abandoned) that they would have them again. It is also reasonable to assume that they would have continued to support terrorism in the region. The invasion of Iraq ended doubt on both these matters.
But was it ‘legal’? Of course, it depends what you mean by ‘legal’. The domestic paradigm of legality entails acceptance by the individual citizen of a limitation on his right to defend his interests, on the understanding that established agencies (the police and courts) will defend them for him. In the international arena these ‘agencies’ (the Security Council and such ad hoc military forces as it may be able to command) are not well developed and have a somewhat spotty record, so it is a moot point as to whether it is reasonable for a state to waive a presumed right to defend its interests itself (or, indeed, waive its right to defend the interests of others). It is certainly the case that an invasion is a prima-facie violation of state sovereignty and that in the Iraq case the Security Council refused to sanction military action. On the other hand the Security Council also declined to support military intervention to prevent genocide in Kosovo (1999). Was the invasion of Kosovo ‘legal’? From what the Security Council did, the answer is surely that it was not, but for many, the NATO action was nonetheless well justified. Here, as in the Iraq invasion case, we do not do ‘justice’ to the underlying complexity of the situation by attempting to resolve the issue through simplistic claims about ‘truth’ and ‘legality’ and the deliverance of a particular group of state representatives on a particular day.