We don’t know if the wars were worth it. And how could we? They are not yet over. The fact that they are not over bespeaks a certain failure on our part. We won the battle for Iraq, but we and the Iraqi people are still suffering significant casualties. We destroyed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but we and the Afghan people are still being killed and maimed by Taliban fanatics. Despite significant victories, we have not won the wars.
It is unlikely that the wars will end with the projected withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies will continue to attack our friends and allies, along with whatever Americans are left behind. Sooner or later they will attack us again here at home, and we will be back on the battlefields. We cannot measure the costs of the wars anymore than we can evaluate their success or failure. The ledgers are still open, alas.
The ledgers are still open primarily because first President Bush, and then President Obama failed to prosecute the real war and chose instead to fight an imaginary one. President Bush said at the very beginning that we were at war with terrorist organizations and the states that sponsored them, and that we would not distinguish between them. If we had been serious about that, we would have waged war primarily against Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terror. Instead, after the forced move of destroying the Taliban regime that favored al-Qaeda, we moved against Iraq. By the time we figured out how to win that battle, the “Axis of Evil” was long forgotten, and the Bush administration sought to strike a bargain with Iran, as had every administration from Jimmy Carter on.
President Obama has reversed the traditional sequence: He began his administration trying to make a deal with Iran, and now, having failed to reach a modus vivendi, is looking for ways to defeat the Tehran regime on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, so far as we can tell, he has yet to seriously consider the most obvious and most promising strategy: Work for regime change in Iran by supporting non-violent democratic revolution.
At the moment, he has said, “Assad must go,” but as yet does not seem to be doing anything to enable the Syrian people to fulfill that promise. Syria is Iran in miniature, a hated regime challenged nonviolently by freedom-seeking people. So it may turn out to be a dry run for this administration, and one can only hope that they will get it right (although, to be sure, it does not seem very likely).
All of which unfortunately means that it is likely to be quite some time before we know if the wars “were worth it.”
— Michael Ledeen is author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, among other books. He is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The 9/11 attacks directly led the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and indirectly into war in Iraq. The Afghan war successfully deprived al-Qaeda of its most important bases and drove its Taliban allies from power. Although bin Laden escaped justice for almost ten years, hundreds of his followers were killed or captured and al-Qaeda’s central command now poses a much reduced threat. Achieving these results in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been expensive in terms of blood and treasure, but it has prevented al-Qaeda from inflicting another devastating blow on the U.S. homeland.
The Iraq war is a more difficult question, in part as a result of the flawed intelligence that skewed the perceived threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime to the United States. But given the information then available, I think that the Bush administration made the correct decision in disarming Iraq and ousting Saddam. Although Iraq’s missing chemical weapons were never found, Saddam was caught red-handed hiding prohibited missiles and slaughtering his own people, both violations of the ceasefire that ended the 1991 Gulf War.