Politics & Policy

Judgement Calls

Measuring success in Iraq.

After the arrow has hit, the bowman’s success is in the hands of whoever decides where to paint the target. President George W. Bush’s Iraq arrow is still in flight, so I’m going to paint the target where I think it should have been. I’ll leave it to others to decide what Bush was really aiming at.

#ad#There were four principal reasons for removing Saddam Hussein in spring 2003. Some of the intended results have been achieved. Others have not. The costs have clearly been higher than expected.

The first and most prominent justification for the war was to prevent Saddam from acquiring or using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and to prevent him from providing such weapons to a terrorist group. Certainly this purpose has been achieved: No American president will again have to wonder how far advanced Saddam’s WMDs program is.

Yet given the failure so far to find meaningful stocks of illicit weapons, the question is whether the invasion was really necessary. That’s a judgment call. If you think the West should have been willing to take a chance with Saddam–leaving him alone unless there was, say, a 95-percent certainty that he was on the verge of acquiring the bomb–then the attack was unnecessary. If, on the other hand, you think the responsible thing to do was to remove the danger now because there might not be a chance to do so later, then Bush and the Coalition acted prudently. In other cases, such as North Korea, Iraq in 1991, and Libya, the surprises have all cut against us–weapons programs were far more advanced than our intelligence agencies had led us to expect.

The second justification for war was humanitarian: Ending a 30-year reign of murder, torture, and repression. This is what the majority of U.S. soldiers in Iraq seem to care most about, and it is why most of them continue to feel positively about the war. This, too, has been accomplished. Still, it remains to be seen if the gains made so far will be consolidated and advanced, or eroded and erased.

For now, we can’t be sure. Consequences that might be considered almost as bad as living under Saddam are still possible, though not likely. The great majority of Iraqis seem confident that things are looking up. Refugees are returning, not leaving.

The third justification for the war was that it was part-and-parcel of the war on terror. Here America’s success is more difficult to measure.

There can be no doubt that Saddam’s Iraq was, with Iran and Saudi Arabia, the most important Middle East government providing political support for terrorism. Irrespective of whether Saddam’s regime had meaningful links to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attackers, there is no argument that Saddam harbored the likes of Abu Nidal, funded Palestinian suicide bombers, and helped train and support other international terrorists. The exact extent of this activity is unknown, but clearly it’s no longer happening, and this must count as a success in the war on terrorism.

Still, critics of the war argue that it has distracted American attention and resources from the real enemy, which is al Qaeda; that it has complicated diplomatic efforts with Arab governments (and Iran) to quit sponsoring terror and to aid the West in its efforts; and that it has inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. But these arguments don’t seem convincing.

Part of the war on terror is chasing terrorists, but the main task is inducing Arab and Muslim governments to stop harboring and supporting terrorists. It isn’t a shortage of troops that prevents us from getting al Qaeda leaders in Iran; it is the failure to convince the Iranian government that it is too dangerous to harbor terrorists. The test of whether Iraq advanced or hindered our war against terrorism is whether it increases or decreases actions against terrorism by Middle Eastern governments.

People disagree about whether removing Saddam is helping or hurting the war on terrorism because they have opposite ideas about how to get Arab governments and Iran to stop harboring terrorists. One side, common in the State Department, thinks that the way to do it is to protect the current Arab regimes and to accommodate them, for example by being less “favorable” to Israel. The opposite approach, which is urged by Middle Eastern experts like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, is that the Arab governments will only stop harboring and supporting terrorists if they are compelled to do so by fear of what the U.S. will do to them (in almost all cases by political action) if they refuse, and in the long run if the region is shaken by examples of Arab freedom.

If you think that we can get Middle East governments to really stop harboring terrorists by protecting current regimes and accommodating them then the Iraq war hurt the campaign against terrorism. If you think that the Middle East needs to change by the U.S. demonstrating its ability to act against those who defy it, and by providing an example of Arab freedom in Iraq, then Iraq was the essential first step, and must not be allowed to turn into a defeat. Libya’s turn against WMD and support for terrorism because Gaddafi didn’t want to end up in a spider hole is evidence that Bush’s decision to remove Saddam may be the right way to fight terrorism wholesale.

The more serious question is whether Iraq could yet turn into a military and political quagmire for the U.S., in turn leading to a loss of Western will to continue to fight the war on terror. It is not impossible that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair–who must fight the war on terror not least because they “own” it politically–may soon lose office. The U.S. could find itself fighting a prolonged and inconclusive battle against insurgents in Iraq, which would encourage jihad by making the U.S. seem weak and vulnerable and by providing regular televised demonstrations of U.S. violence against Muslims. Even worse, the fighting could turn into genuine civil war or popular insurgency.

Still, it bids fair that Iraqis will succeed in creating a reasonably law-, rights-, and minorities-respecting government that will be able to lead the fight against foreign and domestic terrorists. This would be a considerable victory for the U.S. even if it has to keep troops in Iraq for years. What matters is that the U.S. is seen as fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government and the great majority of the Iraqi people.

The final justification for the war in Iraq was that it would begin the process of changing the political face of the Middle East–the so-called democracy goal. Opponents of the war claim it has failed because Iraq is not yet a democracy and other Middle East dictatorships have not yet fallen like dominos.

This would seem a rather premature condemnation–a week into the life of the sovereign Iraqi government. Right now, the outcome is completely unclear. It will be a success if an elected Iraqi government stabilizes the political situation by becoming the accepted and lawful authority in the country while maintaining freedom of the press and competing political parties.

As for the domino effect, there will not be one until the outcome in Iraq becomes clearer. Already there have been some small responses in the Arab world, and questions of movement toward the rule of law and consensual government are closer to the political agenda than they were before. But this slight favorable movement could be completely reversed if the U.S. is defeated in Iraq and a new Sunni dictatorship comes to power.

So how is success to be judged? Partly, it’s a matter of judgment: If you think we couldn’t take a chance on Saddam remaining in power; and if you think liberating the Iraqi people from despotism was worth a price in Western blood and money; and if you think Saddam’s political weight on the side of terror prevented turning the regional political balance against terrorism; and if you think the democracy goal is at least worth a try–if you think these things, then the removal of Saddam has already resulted in substantial benefits. What happens in the future could either multiply these benefits or wipe most of them out. The decisive issue is whether there continues to be an Iraqi government that enjoys popular support in its fight against those who are attacking it.

Here the chance of success is reasonably good, though perhaps not as good as it was a year ago. Partly this is because division within the U.S. government about some of the objectives has resulted in major policy errors in the occupation, and partly because opponents of Bush and the U.S. have refused to support such goals as opposition to dictatorship, the defeat of terrorism, and the welfare of Iraqis.

Max Singer, author (with Aaron Wildavsky) of The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil, is a fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center and the Institute of Policy and Strategy of the IDC in Herzliya. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.

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