Ten years ago, the day after the U.S. invaded Iraq, I published an op-ed in The New York Times with the completely inaccurate headline: “Good Reasons for Going Around the U.N.” I did not think that the U.S. had good reasons for going around the U.N.; indeed, I was politically naïve enough to believe right down to the last minute that the Bush administration would not act without U.N. approval. Once the invasion was underway, however, I argued that although illegal, it could still be made legitimate if: 1) U.S. troops found weapons of mass destruction; 2) the Iraqi people greeted the troops as liberators; and 3) the U.S. then went back to the U.N. Security Council and sought a post-hoc approval of the action by majority vote, as NATO did after the intervention in Kosovo.
None of these three conditions were met; the Iraq war is thus both illegal and illegitimate in the eyes of the vast majority of nations. Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found. Had I not believed that, I would never have countenanced any kind of intervention on purely humanitarian terms. Many dictators brutalize their populations; they have to conduct the equivalent of active war against their own citizens to reach the threshold of the responsibility to protect doctrine. Nor is it permissible to use military force to establish a democracy, even assuming such an outcome were likely or even possible. But if you did think that Saddam Hussein had an illegal WMD program, then the terror and torture that many Iraqi civilians suffered served as an additional justification for using force.
I now see the decision to invade Iraq as cynical, tragic, immoral, and irresponsible to the point of folly. I do not think that the thousands of U.S. and allied lives lost were lost in vain: Only time can tell what Iraq will become; how the Iraqi people will look back on the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing ten years of violence; and what role Iraq will play in the larger Middle East. It is very difficult to imagine any transition from Saddam to post-Saddam without some violence and political upheaval in a nation as fractured religiously and ethnically as Iraq. But in hindsight, the U.S. decision to spend tens of billions of U.S. dollars; to ignore all knowledge, planning, and expertise about Iraq with regard to what should happen when the bullets stopped flying; and to ignore the opposition of many of our closest allies in deciding when and how to take action is virtually indefensible.