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Was the Invasion of Iraq Justified?

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) Artemus Ward, Northern Illinois University; (Claim B) Robert McMahon, Ohio State University

Suggested Sequencing

Issue on the Table

Was the preemptive invasion of Iraq justified by the available intelligence related to the War on Terror and the suspicion of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)?


Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Claim A

The preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified at the time. Furthermore, although several plausible reasons were given at the time to defend the invasion—some of which were ultimately unfounded—in retrospect, the invasion can still be considered a success and a model for American and allied military intervention around the world. The simple fact is that brutal, dictatorial regimes, such as the one in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, that commit human rights abuses against their own people and invade other nations in defiance of international law and global demands for change must be stopped at all costs. And although war should always be a last resort, it is morally justifiable to prevent genocide.

Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq in 1978 and began a long reign of terror against his own people and the people of neighboring countries. For example, in 1988, he was responsible for the Anfal genocide in which chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin, were used to massacre 50,000 to 100,000 civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1991, he illegally invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, and the United States led a United Nations–authorized, multinational coalition to use military force to successfully drive him out. A ceasefire agreement allowed Saddam to remain in power, but he agreed to destroy his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs): chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-range missiles. This agreement was reinforced by economic sanctions and a “no-fly” zone, which he violated by firing upon the allied planes enforcing it. Monitors from the United Nations (U.N.) conducted inspections to determine if Iraq was complying with the terms of the agreement. However, in 1998, Iraq stopped allowing the inspections and did not resume them until November 2002 under the threat of an impending invasion. By that point, American and British aircraft had dropped thousands of bombs to prevent Saddam from developing WMDs. Despite the bombing, the inspectors reported that Iraq had ongoing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs. At the same time, the economic sanctions had contributed to a health crisis in which thousands of children were dying each month.

By 2003, it was plain to many observers and politicians that something drastic had to be done. The normal diplomatic tools had repeatedly been tried and failed. Since 1991, Saddam had ignored 17 different U.N. resolutions, including refusing to allow weapons inspections and continuing to commit human rights abuses against his own people. This position was reinforced when American intelligence concluded he had developed WMDs and had harbored and supported terrorists. In the post-9/11 environment, most Americans, from both political parties, viewed Saddam as a threat that could no longer be tolerated. War—always a last resort—was the only avenue left. Both houses of Congress passed the Iraq Resolution on October 16, 2002, authorizing military action against Iraq by comfortable margins, with the Republicans overwhelmingly voting to use force and the Democrats evenly divided. Among the many factors justifying the use of force was Iraq’s “brutal repression of its civilian population.” On November 8, 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, which required Iraqi disarmament but did not authorize force. In the ensuing months, weapons inspectors concluded that Iraq was not in compliance with U.N. mandates, and the United States and its allies decided to act.

On March 20, 2003, the United States led the invasion that swiftly toppled Saddam and his brutal regime. However, no WMDs were ever found. Critics suggested the WMD argument was a ruse propagated by an American government determined to gain control of an important Middle Eastern, oil-producing state. The United States struggled to establish and maintain order and oversee a peaceful transition to a democratic government. As the years progressed, American casualties mounted, and the new Iraqi government was seen by many as ineffective. The Iraq War became increasingly unpopular in the United States, and most Americans would ultimately view it as a mistake.

Still, despite the criticism, the fact remains that the invasion was the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. Saddam had to be stopped from continuing to terrorize 22 million Iraqis, including his political prisoners and torture victims, adding to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis he killed since he took power in 1978. The question of whether U.S. armed forces should be deployed to combat human rights abuses is necessarily political. Viewed in moral terms, however, there can be no debate. If the United States does not stand up abroad for the values it cherishes at home, including freedom and equality, it will be complicit in the brutal actions of authoritarian regimes around the world. Whatever the shortcomings of post-Saddam Iraq, removing him from power saved lives and made safer the lives of those who would have been terrorized and tortured under his cruel regime.

Claim B

No, the preemptive invasion of Iraq was not justified at the time by the intelligence related to the War on Terror or by the suspicion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was based on false premises, the gross exaggeration of the threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein, and incorrect claims about the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

On August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a major speech in Nashville, Tennessee, in which he essentially called for war against Iraq. Cheney labeled that nation a clear and present danger, connecting it to the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks against the United States and the broader terrorist threats that Americans now faced. “The president and I never for a moment forget our number-one responsibility,” Cheney declared. “To protect the American people against further attack and to win the war that began last September eleventh.” Because there was “no doubt” that Iraq possessed large stocks of biological and chemical weapons, the vice president reasoned, and because “many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” the United States simply could not afford to ignore this growing threat any longer. “The risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action,” Cheney warned. That was so because the Iraqi dictator was “amassing” WMDs “to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

Cheney’s bellicose address formed the opening act of what became a concerted campaign by the Bush administration to gain public and congressional support for an action that the president, vice president, and their leading advisers had already decided upon: the toppling by military force of Hussein’s government. Fear played a central role in that campaign. On September 8, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice reiterated Cheney’s chief themes while using even more frightening imagery. “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons,” she remarked. “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” The president added his voice to the chorus four days later, in a major address before the U.N. General Assembly. Iraq represented “a grave and gathering danger,” Bush proclaimed. “With every step the Iraqi regime takes toward gaining and deploying the most terrible weapons, our own options to confront that regime will narrow.”

On October 7, the president delivered a speech in Cincinnati that described the threat posed by Iraq in the most dire and alarmist terms yet. Bush called attention to the “high-level contacts” between Iraq and al-Qaeda that, he said, “go back a decade.” He asserted that Hussein maintained biological and chemical weapons, was “increasing his capabilities to make more,” and was, at the same time, “moving closer to developing a nuclear weapon.” Time was of the essence. “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us,” the president cautioned. “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

The frequently asserted, but unproven, links between al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that actually attacked the United States on 9/11, and the Saddam Hussein regime, which did not, formed a crucial part of the administration’s campaign of persuasion and manipulation. That campaign culminated on February 5, 2003, with the highly publicized report to the U.N. by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Buttressed with charts, exhibits, and recently declassified intelligence reports, Powell’s presentation treated as incontrovertible facts matters that remained quite uncertain, even within United States and other Western intelligence circles. “Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between one hundred and five hundred tons of chemical weapons agent,” he declared with certitude. Saddam “remains determined to acquire nuclear weapons.” The secretary of state also spoke directly of what he called “the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network,” again offering as fact something that was not.

Bush gave one last press conference before he announced, on March 19, the inauguration of hostilities against Iraq. During that appearance, he interchanged the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime no fewer than eight times. The palpable fears engendered within American society by the first attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812 provided the Bush administration with a highly emotive point of reference, one that it exploited repeatedly in its efforts to mobilize popular support for the planned invasion of Iraq. The absence of any unambiguous evidence tying Iraq to al-Qaeda hardly seemed to matter as key administration spokesmen continually stressed, without significant qualification, that such links existed. Public opinion polls and a key congressional vote overwhelmingly authorizing the president to use force in Iraq that winter testify to the effectiveness of the administration’s campaign of persuasion and the scare tactics at the heart of that campaign. Fear, to put it bluntly, helped sell the American people on the need for a wholly unjustified war with Iraq.

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

“Public Law 107-243—Oct. 16, 2002. Authorization for the Use of Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.”

United Nations Security Council. “Resolution 1441 (2002).” November 8, 2002.

Primary Sources (Claim B)

Bush, George. President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat, October 7, 2002.

Bush, George. President Bush Addresses Nation, March 19, 2003.

Cheney, Dick. “Full Text: In Cheney’s Words.” August 26, 2002. New York Times

Powell, Colin. Powell, Colin. Speech to the United Nations on Iraq. February 5, 2003.

Rice, Condoleezza address, September 8, 2002, quoted in Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin, 2006: p. 58.

Suggested Resources (Claim A)

“Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.” Wikipedia

Bolton, John. “Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the Right Move for the U.S. and Its Allies.” The Guardian. February 26, 2013.

Mellow, David. “Iraq: A Morally Justified Resort to War.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 23, no.3 (2006): 293–310.

Pollak, Joel B. “5 Reasons the Iraq War was Not a Mistake.” Breitbart. May 19, 2015.

Power, Samantha. “A Problem from Hell.” America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

“Why Did We Go to War?” PBS Frontline

“Why War Would Be Justified.” The Economist. February 20, 2003.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Anderson, Terry H. Bush’s Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Bailey, Beth, and Richard H. Immerman, eds. Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Bush, George W. Decision Points. New York: Crown, 2010.

Hahn, Peter. Missions Accomplished? The United States and Iraq since World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ricks, Thomas E. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Woodward, Bob. Plan of Attack. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

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