There is no need to review the now common judgment on the Iraqi war as a fiasco, quagmire, or “worst” something or other in American history.
We have paid over four years, a high price in blood and treasure in our effort to foster consensual government after the brilliant three-week victory over Saddam Hussein. A common complaint is that our presence in Iraq only empowered both Syria and Iran. They supposedly “won” as we soon became overextended in two unwinnable theaters — and were paralyzed into general inaction by the terrorism and the sectarian killing in Iraq.
It is certainly true that the sharp post-invasion increase in the price of oil — $30-36 per barrel oil in 2003 has now soared to over $80 — has led to trillions of dollars pouring into a volatile Middle East, where millions have been siphoned off to radical charities, madrassas, mosques, and terrorists. Both bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri, while in hiding, are still loose, releasing serial propaganda videos — and getting money from somewhere.
The country at home is torn apart over the Iraq war. Ads in our papers are harder on General Petraeus than they are Osama bin Laden. And while we fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dollar is at an all time low; we are running continual budget deficits; and we service enormous national and trade debts.
So that glum picture is the standard view of the ramifications of the United States fighting still, after four years, to secure Iraq. But is that the entire story — especially if we look at the larger war on terror, in which the four-year Iraqi war is deeply embedded?
For example, do more or fewer countries have dangerous weapons programs? Is the Islamic Street more or less ready to help suicide bombers and terrorists? And are our allies in Europe and the Middle East more or less cooperative after the Iraqi war? Are the long-term trends favorable or unfavorable to our cause?
At the end of the Clinton administration, there was bipartisan worry that four countries may have had viable nuclear weapons programs — Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Two of those, we know now, do not; North Korea may not either. Iran is facing international scrutiny as never before. In fact, it is still possible that we will not see a single member added to the nuclear club during this current administration — in contrast to the acquisition of an “Islamic bomb” by Pakistan during the 1990s.
Al Qaeda leaders continue to be arrested or killed. Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binlshalbh — the twin architects of September 11 — were arrested and are probably still both in Guantanamo. Other former key al Qaeda operatives like Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri likewise are in American custody.
Abu Yaqub al-Masri, Omar Farouq, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, after fleeing from Afghanistan, were killed by our troops in Iraq. In fact, most of the worst Islamic terrorists, from a Mohammed Atef to Ali Mohammed, are now either dead or in custody.
A common objection argues that Al Qaeda is hydra-like, and new faces will simply replace the old. But remember that the emergence of a Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the result of a long winnowing-out process over years in Afghanistan, where the most sinisterly talented emerged to claim preeminence. Killing or capturing these leaders is analogous to a Nazi party without Himmler, Goering, or Goebbels.
Radical Islam could not exist without receptive local populations that hide, shelter, and subsidize radical Islamists. Indeed, the current war will ultimately be won or lost by the degree to which Muslim tribes and Arab communities drain the water in which the al Qaeda sharks swim.
So has bin Laden used our invasion of an Arab Muslim country to rally support around his radical Islamic agenda? He tried, and after 2003 he seemed to be succeeding, and enjoying wide support in Pakistan where he probably hides. But according to a poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.Org in April 2007, large majorities in Egypt (88 percent), Indonesia (65 percent) and Morocco (66 percent) acknowledged that “groups that use violence against civilians, such as al Qaeda, are violating the principles of Islam. Islam opposes the use of such violence.” And in other Pew Global Attitudes polls of the Middle East, popular support for bin Laden himself has nose-dived, and with it approval of suicide bombing.
We all remember the European acrimony over the invasion of 2003, when both France and Germany led a continental-wide attack on the United States. But the election-cycle leaders who whipped up that anti-Americanism — Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, especially — are both gone, and are mostly disgraced. Few would have imagined in 2003 that a French President would, just four years later, be warning Iran — and the world at large — about the possibility of war should the theocracy continue on its path to nuclear-weapons acquisition.
As America fought radical Islamists of all sorts in Iraq, Europe was bombed in Madrid and London; Theo van Gogh was murdered in the Netherlands; cartoonists in Denmark and Sweden were threatened along with opera producers in Germany; and even the pope himself in Rome warned.
The old idea that the United States in Iraq “stirred” up otherwise somnolent jihadists finally lost currency. Instead, many European leaders began to see — however unwise they thought the strategy of promoting constitutional government in Baghdad had become — that Iraq was but one theater in larger struggle against radical Islam. Subsequent European surveillance and wiretaps of suspected jihadists are now far less scrutinized than in the United States. There are probably more video cameras in London than in all major American cities combined. The continent’s immigration laws, at one time far more lenient than ours, are now becoming far more restrictive.
Are the efforts of Middle East reformers stronger or weaker after the invasion of Iraq? Critics have claimed that the idea of promoting political reform is now dead and buried. But most would still concede that there is some mood for optimism about Libya in a way not true in 2002. Lebanon is free of Syrian troops and the democracy is fighting for its life against serial Syrian-sponsored assassinations. There is thawing in Pakistan, and perhaps the reemergence of a democratic alternative to either military rule or Islamic theocracy. The Sunni monarchies, once furious over our promotion of democratic reformers, now in fear of Iran and their own Shiite minorities, are growing closer to, not more distant from, the United States.
Most Americans, disheartened by continual Iraqi violence, the deaths of Americans each week, and billions spent monthly, write off Iraq as a mistake. So do they consequently favor, along with most Democratic leaders, a rapid withdrawal on a fixed timetable to ease us out of this “quagmire”?
Not exactly. The latest Gallup poll records that 54 percent of Americans surveyed reported that they think Petraeus’ plans for removing troops are at about the right pace — or actually too quick. On the other hand, just 33-percent see the present downsizing as moving too slowly. Other current polls reflect the general thinking that finally we have the right strategy in Iraq and the right general, and that Americans should give him the support to finish stabilizing the country in order to draw down in victory rather than in defeat.
Here at home, we have not been hit, as was predicted would happen, with another terrorist attack of the magnitude of September 11. For all the opposition to the Patriot act, wiretaps, and preventive detentions, it is hard to find Americans who feel their freedoms are daily infringed upon in any manifest way. The greater danger to free speech — note the cancellation of UC Davis’s invitation to Larry Summers or Stanford’s uproar over inviting Donald Rumsfeld to serve on a task force at the Hoover Institution — seems to arise from overzealous university professors, not FBI moles and NSA operatives.
It is hard to find Democratic opposition leaders who are taking concrete steps to overturn these post-September 11 antiterrorism measures. Perhaps they feel that hundreds of Islamic terrorists have been caught thanks to these protocols — and hundreds more won’t be — should we overturn them. For all their talking of invading Pakistan, or taking our eye off bin Laden, or ending wiretaps, or fleeing Iraq, or closing down Guantanamo, a President Clinton or Obama probably won’t do any of that. Privately, they understand that we are currently faced with few good choices, and, for all their hysteria, that we are making progress on the present course.
In the long-term, global conditions favor the West. Western free expression, consumer capitalism, consensual government, and popular culture are far more dynamic — and less insidiously intrusive — than is 7th-century Islam. If this generation of Westerners can prevent radical Islam from obtaining the means to destroy a Western capital, our own way of life will prove far more disruptive to al Qaeda’s worldview, than radical Islam has proven itself to the West.
All that the autocracies have going for them in the Middle East is the accident of a commodity beneath their feet that someone else found, developed, and buys. But $80-a-barrel oil eventually will anger Western democracies, India, and China enough for them to change. Those who produce global goods and services are handing over their profits to those who don’t — and that will spurn them on to find alternatives to current petroleum consumption. Remember these price hikes are probably permanent, and not the result of embargos or voluntary cutbacks; so the likelihood that OPEC can turn on the spigots and crash oil prices to deflect efforts to find alternate energy are far less true than during the 1980s.
Discover how to cut American imported oil, and we can prevent trillions in windfall profits from going to the Middle East. And if we can curtail American casualties in Iraq, then neither the length nor the size of the deployment become sources of acrimony. Instead the war in the public mind devolves into a long-term necessary challenge, analogous to our current deployments in Afghanistan or the Balkans.
There are a great number of uncertainties ahead. The Pakistani-Saudi nexus — that provides both sanctuary and money for terrorists — seems sacrosanct from criticism, and makes our efforts elsewhere to promote democratic reform hypocritical, when these two autocracies, one nuclear, the other laden with oil and cash, get a pass.
The United States must put its financial house in order, curtail its imported oil, stabilize Iraq, prevent somehow Iran from getting a bomb, find ways to continue to support democratic reform in the Middle East without providing one-vote, one-time plebiscites to radical Islamists, and explain all that we are doing — and why — far more coherently and eloquently to the American public.
But the current orthodoxy that America is losing the war on terror inside and outside Iraq, while bereft of allies, is simply not true. Instead we are winning — it’s ugly perhaps, but winning nonetheless.
—Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson fellow in military history and classics at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. This September he is teaching at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan as the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History.