Posted by: David Offutt | January 30, 2009

The Iraq War Blunder (Part 2): The U.S. Needed Saddam Hussein

One studies history to learn from the experiences of others. The needless and counterproductive invasion of Iraq is an excellent example of an action that ignored important lessons of history. Those who instigated the ill-planned invasion and occupation seemed to be largely ignorant of history and, even if confronted with facts, didn’t seem to care. They had already made up their minds what they were going to do.


One day in 1993, I was covering an important issue concerning the Punic Wars in my ancient history class at the American School of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The Punic Wars consisted of three major wars between Rome and Carthage. Rome won all three wars. My question to my students was this: Why did Rome not destroy the city of Carthage after either of the first two wars when it had the chance? Our discussion eventually led my students to the answer: As long as the hated, barbaric, and dangerous Carthage existed, other cities and nations needed the Roman Republic’s friendship to get assistance for defense.

At that moment, a teaching colleague, who sat in on my class two or three times a week, looked up at the ceiling and blurted out, “That’s why we didn’t take out Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War!” I appreciated his reaction and told him and the class that I agreed and considered that to have been the primary, yet unspoken, reason. The U.S. was, in fact, still accepted in the Middle East for that purpose right up to the time of our invasion in March 2003 – except for nutcases like Osama bin Laden.

George H. W. Bush’s finest hour in foreign affairs as President was his initial response to Saddam’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. His secretary of state, James Baker, brilliantly formed a coalition of forces from 34 countries, including many of Iraq’s neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. The official reason given for the Jan.-Feb. 1991, Operation Desert Storm ending before we reached Baghdad was that that was the deal – in return for international cooperation, we would not get Saddam. We would only drive his army out of Kuwait. Iraq’s neighbors feared Saddam and needed the U.S. to keep him pacified, but none of them wanted the U.S. invading or permanently occupying any Muslim country.

Unfortunately, the first Presdent Bush’s administration also consisted of a group known within the White House as “the crazies.” These were the neo-conservatives of today led by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and included his brain trust – Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, and Donald Rumsfeld. This bunch strongly favored a full invasion into Iraq, but they were resisted by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. Powell conditioned his support of the war on there being no attack on Baghdad. Fortunately, at that time Powell had the upper hand, but the next time he didn’t.

In 1992 after the First Gulf War, “the crazies” proposed the “Defense Planning Guidance” draft under the authorship of Paul Wolfowitz. The idea was that the U.S. should retain our position as the only super power in the post-cold war era by militarily intervening in any country, whether friend or foe, that we suspected might threaten our supremacy. Happily, their draft gathered dust during the eight years of relative peace under Bill Clinton. Sadly, with the takeover of the U.S. by the renegade Bush-Cheney co-presidency, it was renamed the “Bush Doctrine of Preemptive War” and put into effect in Iraq.

In 1998 the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think-tank that included “the crazies,” sent a letter to President Clinton suggesting he unilaterally remove Saddam Hussein by using U.S. diplomatic, political, and military power. They probably thought that he would be willing to do anything to deflect attention away from Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. Instead, Clinton tried to get Osama bin Laden on Aug. 20 when intelligence sources thought they had found his location – unfortunately, he failed.

Colin Powell clearly realized that Dick Cheney and his fellow “crazies” were going to be running the country when the second Bush (George W.) moved into the White House. As Secretary of State, Powell probably hoped he could prevent “the crazies” from enacting their disastrous policies. Tragically, Powell was never allowed within the policy-making loop, and he was ultimately used by this administration to sell a phony bill of goods to the U.N. to set up the invasion of Iraq.

The Army’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told the Senate Armed Services Committee three weeks before the invasion that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to pacify Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense Wolfowitz vehemently denied the necessity of that many troops. They refused to accept that it would take more troops to stabilize the country than it took to defeat it. After Saddam’s fall from power, our provisional governor of Iraq Paul Bremer asked for the 500,000 troops he required but was denied them. Where did the 500,000-troop estimate come from? Did Shinseki and Bremer make it up or was it based on lessons of history?

In 1995 the U.S. Army War College published an article by James Quinlivan in its journal “Parameters.” The subject was “Force Requirements in Stability Operations.” Mr. Quinlivan analyzed the number of peacekeeping forces that have historically been needed to restore and maintain order in troubled areas. For instance, based on the British experiences in Malaysia and Northern Ireland, 20 troops would be needed for every 1000 inhabitants. And those geographic areas are much smaller than Iraq.

Hence, if it were possible at all, 500,000 troops would be the minimum required to restrain insurgencies in Iraq. Incredibly, it would require 600,000 in Afghanistan! Guess what? Our volunteer Army and Marine Corps consisted of only 700,000 soldiers. This gives new meaning to Rumsfeld’s flippant remark, “You have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.” And he said this about a war eagerly anticipated by the diabolical Bush-Cheney Administration from the moment it took power!

Even though virtually everyone is glad Saddam is gone, his removal as a potential menace in the Middle East means that the U.S. is no longer needed by his neighbors to contain him – and now our presence there is daily increasing the danger of further terrorism and hatred of America. In the incompetent hands of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team, the aftermath of Saddam’s fall has been a catastrophe. They put 144,000 troops in harm’s way to do the job of 500,000, so the Iraqi insurgency is turning that country into total chaos. All of this was known and predicted before we ever went in. They wanted this war so badly that they just didn’t care.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 1, 2006,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.


  1. I agree with the gist of this post, but naturally, a couple of minor details deserve more discussion.

    You said “The U.S. was, in fact, still accepted in the Middle East for that purpose right up to the time of our invasion in March 2003 – except for nutcases like Osama bin Laden.”

    Oh, really ? Accepted by who — by the dictators we support ? Is our presence in the Middle East welcomed by Iran, by Syria, by Palestine ? By the average Arab ?

    Does Noam Chomsky think our presence in the Middle East has been a good thing ?

    If a foreign country occupied El Dorado, Arkansas, would you welcome them with open arms ? (admittedly, a foreign power might be an improvement over your current dittohead mayor ). But what if the foreign power propped up your dittohead mayor, giving him money and weapons to help him maintain and enforce his power — as long as he kowtowed to the foreigners ? You would like that ?

    To dismiss Bin Laden as a nutcase, without considering his grievances, is like dismissing Sitting Bull as a nutcase, without considering Sitting Bull’s grievances.

    Yes, some of the Native Americans were driven to hatred and violence, and sometimes they killed civilians, not just soldiers. Today we would call them “terrorists.” Yet, can you say for certain that if you had been in their shoes, you would have acted differently ? If your family had been killed by white people, if your homeland had been stolen by white people, can you be certain that you would not have been driven to violence ?

    Bin Laden resents the US military presence in the Middle East, the US support for Middle East dictators, and the US support for the Palestinian genocide. If you had been born and raised as an Arab in the Middle East, would you feel any differently ?

    Consider MLK’s advice : “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

    The other issue that needs more discussion is the history and culture of Iraq. I understand you write to a certain word limit, and that this post was a letter to the editor, not a book. Still, as a historian, you appreciate that understanding the history of Iraq helps us to understand current events in Iraq.

    Iraq as we know it is an artificial state, resulting from divvying up the spoils of WWI. After WWI, it was occupied by the British, who had a rough time of it. When Iraqis weren’t fighting the British, they were fighting each other.

    Saddam Hussein was able to hold the fractious state together by ruling with an iron fist, and by having a secular government that did not officially favor one religious faction over another.

    For a while, Saddam was our ally. We gave him weapons and encouraged him to attack Iran. We had no problem with Saddam’s harsh methods when they suited our purposes.

    As bad as Saddam was, many Iraqis now think of Saddam’s rule as “the good old days” compared to the American occupation and ongoing civil war.

    Did we really expect Iraqis to suddenly convert to Christianity and Jeffersonian democracy ? If not, then what is our plan ? To occupy Iraq forever ? To support a puppet government forever ? Apparently so.

    Your point about needing more troops to occupy a hostile country “successfully” may be correct from a military point a view, but to me it is completely irrelevant, because we should not be occupying Iraq, period.

    It may be true that if we suddenly leave Iraq, a civil war will likely break out (as if it hadn’t already). But to use that as a justification for continuing to occupy Iraq would be like the British continuing to occupy the American colonies to prevent an American civil war.

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