JACK SPENCER: Narrowing the focus led to the Iraqi tragedy

Recent events in Iraq emphasize the importance of holding consistent, well-defined positions; and that failing to do so can lead to disaster. This lesson is particularly painful for those who noted the failure and were alarmed by it as it occurred.

Witnessing policies one supports being poorly represented is always frustrating. But watching the administration of former President George W. Bush lose focus and stumble — almost thoughtlessly — into an easily avoidable trap was excruciating.

With a solid majority of the nation supporting him, Bush opened what came to be called the Iraq War on March 19, 2003. To many, justification for the military action was clear. The Sept. 11, 2001terrorist attacks on the U.S. demonstrated that preemptive strikes against foreign governments were legitimate extensions of national defense when evidence showed that they posed potential threats.

In the early hours of the war, family members of tens of thousands of U.S. personnel invading Iraq shared an overriding fear. They prayed that the tyrannical Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein did not yet have the capacity to unleash weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, he didn’t — in other words, we hadn’t waited too long. In purely military terms the victory for the U.S. in Iraq was swift and decisive.

To those who understand the logistics of consolidating a victory it was predicable that securing the effected region and population would cost more lives than were lost in the opening phase of the war. What wasn’t foreseen by some — including this columnist — was the unnecessary burden of proof placed on the original decision to go to war in Iraq.

At issue was whether or not Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction could be located. The implication was that only Hussein’s actual possession of these hideous devices would legitimize the U.S. attack. Initially this line of reasoning appeared to be a shallow manifestation of the main stream news media. Then, amazingly, instead of protesting against this unwarranted burden of proof the Bush administration — apparently overly confident that the weapons would be found — accepted it.

The premise that the intelligence apparatus of a nation must establish beyond any doubt that weapons of mass destruction have fallen into malignant hands before preemptive action should be taken is lunacy. Such a restraint would confine the period in which a strike could take place to the interlude between verification of the weapons’ existence and the enemy achieving the ability to deploy them.

The case for eliminating the Saddam Hussein regime had been carefully laid out. Hussein considered Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as his heroes. He had previously used weapons of mass destruction (poison gas) in the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s. He had violated the conditions imposed after the Persian Gulf War 17 times. World War II proved the folly of failing to react quickly and decisively when a dangerous dictator commits such violations.

The Bush administration’s position should have been firm and resolved — Hussein had to be removed before he could use weapons of mass destruction; whether or not he had already obtained them was irrelevant. By acquiescing to the supposition that finding the weapons was the litmus test for justifying the Iraq War, the Bush administration narrowed the focus of its reasoned argument for taking action.

When the weapons couldn’t be located, the very premise of the war was irreversibly weakened. From that point on, those who opposed the war were on the political offensive and millions of Americans became convinced it had all been a mistake from the beginning.

If the case for invading Iraq — whether Hussein possessed the weapons yet or not — hadn’t been tossed away, Bush might have openly proposed keeping a strong military presence there, as the U.S. has done for 60 years in Korea. But with the war’s justification compromised and in the face of calls to “bring the troops home” such a contingency was out of the question.

In the Korean War the U.S. suffered 169,365 casualties, of these 54,229 were killed in action. Our military presence there still numbers 28,500. During the 60-plus years that we’ve kept this vigilant force in place, South Korea has thrived while North Korea has remained virtually a walled prison. This contrast has provided unquestionable evidence of freedom’s superiority over dictatorship. In fact, it has provided the burden of proof that ultimately justified the American blood shed there so long ago.

Any suggestion that unearthing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was needed to justify the Iraq War should have been vehemently rejected by President Bush. Not doing so led to our hurried attempt at nation-building and set the stage for President Barack Obama to define our goals there in terms of little more than withdrawal timetables.

Now, as we watch ISIS advancing in Iraq, we should learn this lesson – it is essential to not only take the right stance but also to stick to it.