It must be said that the War on Terror has substantially been a success. After the 9/11 atrocities, the conventional wisdom — which was reflected in the claims of bin Laden and others in their bloodcurdling videos — was that terrorism would be routine and devastating against any countries that displeased militant Islam. There was the fear and the promise of unlimited numbers of suicide attackers. But despite close calls over Detroit (the panty-bomber) and in Times Square, and doubtless many quietly foiled efforts, there has been no return to terrorism in North America, and very little in Latin America. Even in Europe and Australasia, prime targets, there has not been much beyond the London buses, Madrid commuter trains, and the Australian-frequented bar in Bali.
The Israelis stopped the suicide bombing in their country by killing the outstanding surviving Hamas leader after each outrage; lo and behold, the eagerness for heroic violent death did not extend to those commissioning the suicide attacks, as bin Laden and the rest cowered and skulked in caves or anonymously behind high walls. Thus, the principal raison d’être of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been achieved, though it is not clear that the nearly $2 trillion and about 7,000 American and Western Allied lives expended in those wars were essential to the accomplishment of that objective.
George W. Bush led a 44-nation U.N. and NATO coalition into Afghanistan and then left it stretched over that poor and unfeasible country and decamped to Iraq to dispose of Saddam Hussein, a commendable objective justified in international law by his violation of the Gulf War ceasefire and 17 Security Council resolutions, but not one that had much to do with terrorism.
The nostrum of starting a positive tipping-over of non-democratic dominoes with Iraq has been a disaster, as it produced Hamas in government in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Anwar Sadat’s murderers (the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, and anarchy in Yemen with a noisy al-Qaeda terrorist presence; and Iraq itself is far from the Denmark-on-the-Euphrates the Bush administration was predicting.
In 2011, only 1,500 Iraqis died of political violence, the lowest total since Saddam’s time. But the road, rail, and air transport facilities remain in shambles, millions of households are left without power for up to 20 hours a day, tankers can’t dock near Basra because of the size of bribes that are extorted from them, and the nearly $60 billion that the U.S. spent in Iraq on reconstruction seems to have been consumed almost entirely by anti-blast barricades. The former electricity minister, Raad Shalal, was fired last year for embezzling $1.7 billion (in an Iraqi GDP of $80 billion, that’s like a $300 billion theft by an American public official), and the Fertile Crescent, where cultivated agriculture originated, at least in the Western world, now imports 80 percent of its food. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is in his second term, though he lost the last election, and is still trying to arrest his former chief coalition partner, who is beyond apprehension because he is in the capital of the rebarbative province of Kurdistan.
Though comparisons to Vietnam are nonsense, because the United States was completely militarily successful in Iraq — with volunteer armed forces on a congressionally authorized mission, with fewer than 10 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and with the government it left behind not under full-scale invasion by another country, as South Vietnam was — it is not clear that the U.S. will ultimately have much more to show for its effort in Iraq than it does for Vietnam. Nor is it clear that there was any point to the Iraq War after Saddam was got rid of. Baghdad recently successfully hosted an Arab League meeting, though twelve of the 22 member countries did not attend because they think Maliki is too much under the influence of Iran, which is not why the United States fought the war there. The meeting was a milestone of sorts, as the occasion for a $1 billion municipal cleanup, and security was successfully maintained by 100,000 troops and police.