Iraq: Some Counterfactual What If’s

The carnage in Iraq provokes the question:  Was going to war to remove Saddam a mistake? And even if it was, was the decision to remove all of US forces an even bigger mistake? There has been too little examination of the ethics and wisdom of both decisions.  Counterfactual thought experiments—asking what-if–enable us to speculate on the role of choices at key tipping points in history. I have held that the case for going to war to remove Saddam should have been based on his actions in ordering genocidal mass murder–about which there was no doubt, and not about his still having the capacity to use Weapons of Mass Destruction, about which there were doubts. Recall Saddam’s gassing an estimated 4,500 Kurds in the Anfal campaign in 1986, and his draining the marshlands of the Shiites in South East Iraq, –thereby destroying their livelihoods as fishermen.  And there was his use of chemical weapons against Iranian populations in the late 1980’s. But almost no attention has been given to what is probably the worst of his mass atrocities– his mowing down of an estimated 300,000 Kurds –men, women and children all buried in sands of South Iraq, after he forcibly relocated them to the deserts of South Iraq near Saudi Arabia.  Recently two Kurdish visitors to Jerusalem told me of how the bodies of these victims have been discovered.


Genocidal mass murder, it appears, is not a problem so long as the perpetrators can bury the evidence—and this story does not seem to interest those who opposed overthrowing Saddam. There were certain forgotten unanticipated beneficial consequences of the Second Gulf War   during the lightning conquest of Baghdad in th1 Second Gulf War in 2003; Iran’s leaders were   sufficiently frightened by Allied successes to cease nuclear enrichment. They also reduced their public incitement against Israel. The fall of Saddam put an end to Iraq’s giving 25,000 USD to the family of every terrorist killed carrying attacks against Israel, and Gaza rocket attacks declined precipitously—until Hamas conquered Gaza in its lightning attack. And there was another big unintended bonus: the late Muammar Kaddafi was sufficiently terrified by the US victory, that he voluntarily disclosed and dismantled his secret nuclear program. After Saddam’s defeat in 2003, it took the US four years to recognize the need to stop the killing in a brutal civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. The results were horrific and the consequences undermined the case for the claim that the Second Gulf War could be called a Just War. Estimates of those killed have ranged from 60,000 to 300,000. Whatever the true numbers were, published databases indicate that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis dead were killed by other Iraqis. David Petraeus’ brilliant surge abruptly brought a degree of quiet and stability to Iraq, after George W. Bush realized he had to replace generals who were fighting a losing war.  But President Obama wanted out as quickly as possible.  The United States began withdrawing troops, as part of a worldwide strategy of reducing its global footprint.

The decision to withdraw not only signaled weakness, lack of resolve and not only destabilized Iraq, but encouraged the mullahs in Iran. They rushed ahead with more centrifuges, increased nuclear enrichment, continued with genocidal incitement towards Israel, continued their support for terror, and maintained their persecution of dissidents inside Iran. Obama’s decision to withdraw form Iraq a mere 4 years after the success of the surge invites three counterfactual thought experiments revolving around the long US post war occupations of Germany and Imperial Japan –which were defeated, and with North Korea, which was not.

Thought Experiment No. 1

What would have happened if Harry Truman had brought home the more than 100,000 soldiers stationed in Germany in 1953, eight years after the Nazis surrendered.  It’s a pretty good guess that Stalin’s Red Army, with the help of well organized Communist movement in Europe, would have overrun West Germany and probably much more. (Does anyone still remember the near successful attempt by Stalinist communists to subvert Italy– and the civil war in Greece?) As of 2010, there still were some 50,000 US troops with boots on the ground in Germany.

Thought Experiment No. 2

What would have happened in Japan had the US not occupied with a huge military presence. Would Japan, ruled by a military government humiliated by defeat, morphed into the democracy it is today without these occupations? As of 2010 there were still 35,688 US soldiers with boots on the ground in Japan.

Thought Experiment No. 3

What would have happened if Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson withdrew US soldiers stationed in South Korea after the signing of the cease-fire agreement in 1954?   Would South Korea –then a country in ruins, ruled with an iron fist by Syngman Rhee, have morphed into democracy it is today?  Or would it have been destabilized or overrun by a North Korea’s fanatical regime, then enjoying the support of Mao’s China.  Some 46 years after the cease fire In the Korean Peninsula; the US still has over 28,500 troops in South Korea. Germany, Japan, and South Korea would not have become the successes they are today without the protective role of the US military in each of these three nations. In all three nations, more than a decade was required before they stabilized. In the light of these precedents, the decision by the US to leave Iraq within less than 5 years of achieving a victory of sorts is bizarre. These comparisons underscore the recklessness of rushed too early withdrawal. What would Barack Obama have done were he Great Britain’s Prime Minister on Sept 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland? Would he like Chamberlain honored his treaty with Poland –and declared war within 3 days, or called for negotiation and engagement?  After all, the world was war-weary after WWI, Poland was far away, and the Germans claimed that it was Poland who attacked Germany and not vice versa. Here is the last what-if question: the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in 1860. Would Obama, had he been in Lincoln’s shoes, have gone to war to save the Union and put an end to slavery or would he have called for engagement and a cease-fire?


This article was written with the assistance of Kevin Altman

About the Author
Dr. Elihu D Richter is a founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention