Photo credit: Joe Amditis (2008).

Would the existence of WMDs have justified the invasion of Iraq?

Sixteen years ago the United States launched an aggressive war against a country that didn’t attack us.

The driving force behind the push to go to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq was the claim that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. At least as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, this claim is now widely understood to have been false. Had significant WMD been discovered, however, the invasion of Iraq would still have fallen short of justification under international law.

Notwithstanding the lack of significant WMD found in Iraq, the arguments for intervention and regime change should be examined hypothetically, from a variety of perspectives, in order to more fully understand the justifications for war adopted by establishment politicians in the U.S. at the time.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned in 2002, “These are not weapons for the purpose of defending Iraq. These are offensive weapons for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale, developed so that Saddam can hold the threat over the head of anyone he chooses in his own region or beyond.” If the Vice President’s statements were true, it follows that Saddam Hussein would have attempted to use these “offensive weapons” to “inflict death on a massive scale” against his nearby rivals in Israel, Egypt, or Syria.

Yet, upon examining Saddam’s uses of WMD, it appears the determining factor was not whether Iraq had the capacity to inflict such damage, but whether the intended target had the capacity to retaliate with equal or greater force. While it is true that chemical weapons are rarely considered to be defensive weapons, contemporaneous claims by Cheney and others that Iraq presents a credible threat to “anyone he chooses in his own region or beyond” should be dismissed, unless followed by: “as long as they do not have the capacity to retaliate in kind.”

Others expressed concerns that Saddam Hussein was irrational, warning that “such a man, when mixed with nuclear weapons, was too unpredictable to be prevented from threatening the United States.” Once again, however, it must be noted that Saddam Hussein had multiple opportunities to use WMD against the U.S. and its allies in the past, yet he refrained from doing so.

It is also important to note that the U.S. had successfully deterred the Soviet Union from using WMD during the Cold War. It hardly stands to reason then, to claim that the U.S. was now powerless to stop a country like Iraq from doing the same. Although Saddam Hussein had been a powerful dictator for roughly three decades, Iraq had only participated in two armed conflicts during his reign: with Iran in 1980, and with Kuwait in 1990. Saddam even received direct support from the United States in the form of military training, strategic advice, arms trade, and financial support during the Iran-Iraq War and throughout the 1980s.

Thus, the historical pattern of U.S. involvement with Saddam Hussein and his regime illustrates the contradictory nature of interventionist arguments based solely on the existence of WMD within Iraq. Iraq’s record of military restraint, and the willingness of the U.S. to violate the Arms Export Control Act in support of Saddam cast serious doubt on the argument that he would now suddenly be inclined to launch an attack against the US. After examining the fate of Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks in 2001 — or Japan after Pearl Harbor — launching an attack on the U.S. would be nothing short of collective suicide for Iraq.

After World War II, Nazi war criminals were absolved of their crimes if it could be shown that the Allies had committed similar or identical crimes. Chief Counsel Telford Taylor argued for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials, stating, “To punish the foe — especially the vanquished foe — for conduct in which the enforcer nation has engaged, would be so grossly inequitable as to discredit the laws themselves.”

Indeed, the United States has engaged in the proliferation of nuclear arms and other forms of WMD to several countries, including Iraq. The United States is also the only nation to have ever actually used nuclear weapons in the context of armed conflict. This was done not once, but twice, and the targets were not military in nature, but were instead densely populated civilian areas. Regardless of whether the goal was to rid the world of WMD, or simply to punish those with a record of abusing WMD or civilians, Iraq seems like an arbitrary place to start.

Still, if U.S. officials were interested in stopping Saddam specifically, intervention would have been much more relevant from 1980 to the 1990s, when the worst of Saddam’s crimes were being carried out. The only way to rectify this logical inconsistency is to examine the nature of the relationship between Saddam and the U.S. in previous years. It would appear that Saddam’s regime was not targeted earlier due to the major supporting role of the United States in supplying Iraq’s WMD arsenal in the first place. The U.S. also vetoed every single Security Council resolution condemning Saddam’s actions during the height of his violent reign.

If the U.S. supplied Saddam with WMD in the first place, it cannot then go on to claim that Iraq possessed WMD illegally without simultaneously implicating its own actions as the supplier. With this in mind, it becomes increasingly dishonest to conclude that, after years of direct U.S. military and political backing, intervention was now the only way to deal with Saddam.

There are international legal concerns that must also be taken into account with regard to the invasion of Iraq. According to the Charter of the United Nations, a signature international agreement to which the U.S. is legally bound, there are only two justifications that merit the use of force in international relations: acts of self-defense under Article 51, and acts authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII. All other uses of force are prohibited under Article 2(4) of the Charter, and amount to aggression.

Aggression is “not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” (pp. 46) Absent an armed attack against the United States or one of its allies, claims of individual or collective self-defense are inadequate justifications for the use of force against Iraq and the subsequent invasion therefore constitutes a gross violation of Article 2(4) and Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Additionally, the Security Council did not authorize the use of force against Iraq. The Council did pass Resolution 1441, which demanded that Iraq comply with the calls for disarmament from the international community, but it did not authorize the use of force to compel Saddam Hussein to abide by those demands. While the phrase “all necessary means” has since been used to justify the use of force by NATO in Libya, there was no legal precedent in international law for such an interpretation when Resolution 1441 was first passed. If the possibility of an attack is prima facie justification for armed intervention, it could then be argued that the U.S. first violated international law by threatening unilateral force against Iraq.

Contrary to the statements made by former President George W. Bush, the world needed answers to more than just a “single question” before resorting to force against Iraq. In Iraq, none of the international legal requirements for the use of force were met, and the existence of significant WMD would still have failed to meet the criteria necessary for legitimate armed intervention.

Insofar as history is used to inform the present, the invasion of Iraq should be understood in the context of Justice Robert Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Trials: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”


  1. John J. Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt, “An unnecessary war,” Foreign Policy, Jan-Feb 2003.
  2. Dylan Matthews, “No, really, George W. Bush lied about WMDs,” Vox, 9 July 2016, available at https://www.vox.com/2016/7/9/12123022/george-w-bush-lies-iraq-war.
  3. Remarks by President George W. Bush, White House Press Conference, 21 August 2006, (“Now, look, I didn’t — part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction.”)
  4. Michael Gordon, “The Strategy to Secure Iraq Did Not Foresee a 2nd War,” New York Times, October 19, 2004.
  5. Dick Cheney, “EYES ON IRAQ; In Cheney’s Words: The Administration Case for Removing Saddam Hussein,” New York Times, August 27, 2002, [hereinafter EYES ON IRAQ].
  6. Murray S. Waas and Craig Unger, “Annals of Government, In the Loop: Bush’s Secret Mission,” The New Yorker, November 2, 1992, p. 64.
  7. 22 U.S.C. § 39(VIII)(2)(a), (1991 & Supp. 2012) — Arms Export Control, available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/chapter-39.
  8. Telford Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, (Times Books, 1970).
  9. The Final Months of the War With Japan: Signals Intelligence, U.S. Invasion, Planning, and the A-Bomb Decision, Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 19 March 2007 [accessed 16 December 2012].
  10. John King, “Arming Iraq: A Chronology of U.S. Involvement,” Iran Chamber Society, March 2003.
  11. United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, 1 UNTS XVI, 24 October 1945, available at http://www.unwebsite.com/charter [accessed 15 December 2012], Art. 51.
  12. Bruce Broomhall, International Justice and the International Criminal Court, Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed. (2003), p. 46.
  13. UN Security Council Resolution 1441, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1441, 8 November 2002, at ¶ 4.
  14. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1973, 19 March 2011.
  15. See generally Ryan Goodman, Humanitarian Intervention and Pretexts for War, 100 Am. J. of Int’l L. 107, (2006).
  16. H.J. Res. 114, “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002,” 116 Stat. 1497, 16 October 2002.
  17. Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter reads: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat [emphasis added] or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
  18. President George W. Bush Discusses Iraq in National Press Conference, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 6, 2003, (“The world needs [Saddam] to answer a single question: Has the Iraqi regime fully and unconditionally disarmed, as required by Resolution 1441, or has it not?”).
  19. Kevin Jon Heller, The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law, Oxford Univ. Press (Oxford: ISBN 978–0–199–23233–8), (2011), Opening Statement: Hon. Robert H. Jackson.

An earlier version of this post was published on Dec. 31, 2012 at jamditis.com.