This post is in response to a recent post by Ed Cone (and the comments to it) on why we went into Iraq.
While in hindsight the security lapses of the 1990's appear to be unbelievable, it took that 9/11 terrorist attack on American soil to change the popular conception of what constituted a threat to our national security. A lot of this is about threat assessment. Before 9/11 most people did not think that an act like the attacks was possible. Thus the civilian government was not going to take the drastic action (i.e. an invasion of Afghanistan) necessary to combat the threat. As many have pointed out, drastic measures like that were just not feasible because the support for them that was necessary was not there. However, some people, often in the military (who are not hampered by politics), understood that things like 9/11 could happen informed the government of that threat. These warnings often sounded like someone was yelling that the sky was falling. Unfortunately, the sky did fall.
Fast forward to today. 9/11 has changed how we make our threat assessment. Things that were not viewed as a threat before the attacks, or were viewed as an acceptable risk, are no longer seen that way. The government ignored the warnings about Al Qaeda, and that proved to be a dire mistake. Many of the same people who saw the threat that terrorists posed also favored the toppling of Saddam because they saw his regime as a threat. Could the government have afforded not to heed some of the same warnings about Iraq? As Ed has pointed out, there should be debate over whether we should have gone into Iraq, as well as over how we went in and how the rebuilding effort is being run. This, however, does not take away from the critical point that the main purpose of the invasion of Iraq was to protect the national security of the United States, whatever the side effects may have been. An argument used against the invasion was that people had been calling for an invasion of Iraq, or something like it, since before 9/11, and thus were conveniently using the attacks as a pretext for attacking Iraq. Even if there was no connection between 9/11, Al Qaeda, and Iraq, I believe that the notion of what constituted a threat to our national security changed enough to justify, in the government’s mind, the invasion of Iraq.
The threat Iraq posed to us was no different on September 10th, 2001 than it was on September 12, 2001. The perception of what constituted a threat is what changed. Threats that previously were thought to be impossible or just figments of authors’ or movie script writers’ imaginations were shown to be something that had to be fought and defeated. The world has changed, and our view of what constitutes a threat to us has changed with it.
UPDATE: Ed Cone responds.