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Bad reason to invade Iraq No. 1: Saddam was 'evil'

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(I covered the Iraq war from the summer of 2003 until 2008, and saw first hand the consequences of the decision to invade. Skeptical of the wisdom of the war before the invasion, living and working in Iraq solidified that into certainty. I'll be putting out some of my thoughts on the war into a series of posts in the next few days.)

Ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the Bush administration was creating trumped-up evidence of weapons of mass destruction (remember Colin Powell’s prop-assisted performance at the UN in 2002?) and peddling it to the American public, President George W. Bush took to describing Saddam Hussein and his regime as “evil."

His subordinates followed suit: 

“This is an evil man who, left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, on all of us,” Condoleeza Rice, then Bush’s national security advisor, said in August 2002. She argued that Iraq had to be invaded because “there is a very powerful moral case for regime change.”

In his memoir, then-Vice President Dick Cheney recalls how the 9/11 attacks transformed Bush’s belief that intervention wasn’t such a hot idea into an almost Manichean – good versus evil – approach to foreign policy.

"We were embarking on a fundamentally new policy,” Mr. Cheney wrote. “We are dealing here with evil people.”  

Unfortunately, when fighting "evil" is your reason for going to war, it almost always ends in tears, because the emotional appeal is being used to avoid making arguments from national interest, and also leads to fuzzy and subjective goals, rather than concrete ones.

There were many things I’d be willing to call “evil” about Iraq under Saddam: Rampant use of torture, summary execution, the punishment of whole families for the actions of sons and fathers among them.  

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Yet Iraq today? 

There is still rampant torture, summary executions, and collective punishment.

And during the US occupation?

Rampant use of torture, summary executions, and collective punishment.

Is the situation better than before? Probably, for now. But how many “evil units” have been shaved off the Iraqi “evil” index?

There is no way to judge that. And if we can’t, how can we determine how much evil has to be removed to make the war – which claimed the lives of 165,000 Iraqis and nearly 5,000 Americans and robbed tens of thousands on both sides of limbs, health, and, in some cases sanity – worth it?

Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs were a pretty poor excuse to go to war, but so was the "evil" argument. We didn't care when he used nerve gas on the battlefield against Iran or against Iraq's own Kurdish population in the north in the 1980s. 

When a politician starts talking about wars against “evil,” you should you start running for the hills. He’s either a true believer or he’s making an emotional appeal because he knows he can’t make a convincing national interest argument – the key component to any reasonable case for war. Either way, it’s primrose path time.  

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, former and current Monitor journalists who covered the war are looking at where the Iraq stands today and how things stood at the peak of the war. 

Ten years after invasion, Iraq remains dangerously divided – In the new Iraq, old sectarian fears remain. Around Baghdad's Green Zone, concrete walls pulled down a year ago are going back up.

The day the conflict changed – Ten years after the Iraq invasion, reporter Scott Peterson recalls the day a suicide attack threw him out of bed in a formerly quiet Baghdad neighborhood – and blew a hole in any sense that the war was keeping its distance.

On the road to Baghdad for 17 days – Andy Nelson, who photographed the US invasion of Iraq, recalls the pulling down of Saddam's statue – and early signs of chaos. 

* The Iraq war: a timeline – A photo collection depicting the main events of the conflict.  

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