Saddam Hussein’s regime is dead, as the man himself may be. Three weeks of war freed Iraqis from his tyranny, and the region and the world from the threat it posed. Our coalition has suffered only 154 casualties. Dictators from Damascus to Pyongyang are newly fearful of American power and resolve. And we are confident that the dead regime’s weapons of mass destruction will soon be found and destroyed. This is a victory in which President Bush, Prime Ministers Blair and Howard, our armed forces, and the people of America, Britain, and Australia can take pride. As Brink Lindsey noted on his website, America’s response to the brutal murder of its citizens was not to strike out blindly for revenge. It was “to liberate 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq from two of the most hideous tyrannies on earth.”
Opponents of the war are now saying that they never doubted that it would be won so easily. But this is simply untrue. Politicians, journalists, and retired generals opposed to the war made inflated projections of bodybags coming home. The risk of war for American troops was, indeed, the most popular argument that opponents of the war made. The idea that we were in a quagmire was also the point they made most relentlessly once the fighting had started. They were foolish then, and they look it now. Some of these people made the same predictions before the first Gulf War; they clearly do not learn from experience. But the rest of us should know not to trust their judgment in future foreign-policy controversies.
Those controversies are already coming upon us. Although we have won a great victory, this is not a moment for resting on laurels. We still have to find and destroy the regime’s weapons of mass destruction. The war on terrorism is still going on, and we face many challenges — and temptations. The public may be tempted to believe that we can return to pre-9/11 normalcy, and the Bush administration may be tempted to think that it should now turn its attention almost exclusively to domestic issues. We hope that the president will soon make a prime-time address making it clear that these temptations will be resisted. We are not, and should not be, looking for new military battles to fight. But we do need to remain engaged in changing the political order of the Middle East.
The immediate challenge is, of course, to bring order and governance to Iraq, followed by humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid. Some looting and chaos following the Baathist regime’s collapse was to be expected, and is not a black mark on America’s record. But it needs to be brought to an end. The debts incurred by the old regime should be voided, and sanctions lifted. The State Department and the CIA continue to snipe at Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi democratic leader, claiming that he lacks popular support (something that is indisputably true of the various generals and thugs whom the CIA has preferred to Chalabi). Nobody is suggesting that America install Chalabi or an associate in power. But he and other democratic leaders should be given the chance to prove themselves, to demonstrate and build whatever support they can. We should welcome help from other countries and even from the United Nations, so long as they do not interfere with a process of democratization for which many of them lack enthusiasm.
We should also reject the fantasy, popular in some quarters, of a permanently demilitarized Iraq. We want a free Iraq to be a peaceful one, but it is in a tough neighborhood and will need to be able to defend itself.
The larger challenge is to create a new, non-totalitarian political order in the Mideast. We may be able to exert a positive influence on the region through forms of pressure short of war, the exemplary force of our operation in Iraq, and, we hope, the spillover effects of Iraqi liberalization. The tough rhetoric from the Bush administration toward Syria is a welcome sign that we intend to use the troops we have parked next door to modify its behavior. At the same time, it may be wise to demonstrate that we have no relish for occupying Arab states by quitting Saudi Arabia. The strategic logic of our troop presence there no longer applies.
Many Americans, and even more Britishers and Europeans, believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should also be on our agenda. Oddly, this advice is usually given by people who also warn us to avoid hubris in the Middle East. We can continue to urge Israel to halt the settlements, and to urge the Palestinians to reform their government. But we should not encourage the illusion that we can solve this conflict.
Finally, there is the vexed question of our relations with Europe — or rather, with European nations. Here our policies should be guided neither by a petty desire for revenge against France and Germany nor by the felt diplomatic imperative to make nice. Our interest lies in strengthening the power of our friends in Europe and marginalizing our foes. That means that we should continue to cultivate our ties to Eastern Europe. It also means that we should stop encouraging the centralization of political power on the Continent. For several years, we have told Eastern Europe to join the European Union and have blessed the EU’s efforts to devise a common defense and foreign policy. It is hard to imagine a European policy more perversely counter to our interests. And it is time for the Bush administration to show the same boldness and imagination in its approach to alliance diplomacy that it has shown, to such good effect, in Iraq.