There may be a lot to regret about the past policy of the United States in the Middle East, but the removal of Saddam Hussein and the effort to birth democracy in his place is surely not one of them. And we should remember that this Memorial Day.
Whatever our righteous anger at Khomeinist Iran, it was wrong, well aside from the arms-for-hostages scandal, to provide even a modicum of aid to Saddam Hussein, the great butcher of his own, during the Iran-Iraq war.
Inviting the fascist Baathist government of Syria into the allied coalition of the first Gulf War meant that we more or less legitimized the Assad regime’s take-over of Lebanon, with disastrous results for its people.
It may have been strategically in error not to have taken out Saddam in 1991, but it was morally wrong to have then encouraged Shiites and Kurds to rise up–while watching idly as Saddam’s reprieved planes and helicopters slaughtered them in the thousands.
A decade of appeasement of Islamic terrorism, with retaliations after the serial attacks–from the first World Trade Center bombing to Khobar Towers and the USS Cole–never exceeding the occasional cruise missile or stern televised lecture, made September 11 inevitable.
A decade was wasted in subsidizing Yasser Arafat on the pretense that he was something other than a mendacious thug.
I cite these few examples of the now nostalgic past, because it is common to see Iraq written off by the architects of these past failures as the “worst” policy decision in our history, a “quagmire” and a “disaster.” Realists, more worried about Iran and the ongoing cost in our blood and treasure in Iraq, insist that toppling Saddam was a terrible waste of resources. Leftists see the Iraq war as part of an amoral imperialism; often their talking points weirdly end up rehashed in bin Laden’s communiqués and Dr. Zawahiri’s rants.
But what did 2,400 brave and now deceased Americans really sacrifice for in Iraq, along with thousands more who were wounded? And what were billions in treasure spent on? And what about the hundreds of collective years of service offered by our soldiers? What exactly did intrepid officers in the news like a Gen. Petreus, or Col. McMaster, or Lt. Col Kurilla fight for?
First, there is no longer a mass murderer atop one of the oil-richest states in the world. Imagine what Iraq would now look like with $70 a barrel oil, a $50 billion unchecked and ongoing Oil-for-Food U.N. scandal, the 15th year of no-fly zones, a punitative U.N. embargo on the Iraqi people–all perverted by Russian arms sales, European oil concessions, and frenzied Chinese efforts to get energy contracts from Saddam.
The Kurds would remain in perpetual danger. The Shiites would simply be harvested yearly, in quiet, by Saddam’s police state. The Marsh Arabs would by now have been forgotten in their toxic dust-blown desert. Perhaps Saddam would have upped his cash pay-outs for homicide bombers on the West Bank.
Muammar Khaddafi would be starting up his centrifuges and adding to his chemical weapons depots. Syria would still be in Lebanon. Washington would probably have ceased pressuring Egypt and the Gulf States to enact reform. Dr. Khan’s nuclear mail-order house would be in high gear. We would still be hearing of a “militant wing” of Hamas, rather than watching a democratically elected terrorist clique reveal its true creed to the world.
But just as importantly, what did these rare Americans not fight for? Oil, for one thing. The price skyrocketed after they went in. The secret deals with Russia and France ended. The U.N. petroleum perfidy stopped. The Iraqis, and the Iraqis alone–not Saddam, the French, the Russians, or the U.N.–now adjudicate how much of their natural resources they will sell, and to whom.
Our soldiers fought for the chance of a democracy; that fact is uncontestable. Before they came to Iraq, there was a fascist dictatorship. Now, after three elections, there is an indigenous democratic government for the first time in the history of the Middle East. True, thousands of Iraqis have died publicly in the resulting sectarian mess; but thousands were dying silently each year under Saddam–with no hope that their sacrifice would ever result in the first steps that we have already long passed.
Our soldiers also removed a great threat to the United States. Again, the crisis brewing over Iran reminds us of what Iraq would have reemerged as. Like Iran, Saddam reaped petroprofits, sponsored terror, and sought weapons of mass destruction. But unlike Iran, he had already attacked four of his neighbors, gassed thousands of his own, and violated every agreement he had ever signed. There would have been no nascent new democracy in Iran that might some day have undermined Saddam, and, again unlike Iran, no internal dissident movement that might have come to power through a revolution or peaceful evolution.
No, Saddam’s police state was wounded, but would have recovered, given high oil prices, Chinese and Russian perfidy, and Western exhaustion with enforcement of U.N. sanctions. Moreover, the American military took the war against radical Islam right to its heart in the ancient caliphate. It has not only killed thousands of jihadists, but dismantled the hierarchy of al Qaeda and its networks, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics say that we “took our eye off the ball” by going to Iraq and purportedly leaving bin Laden alone in the Hindu Kush. But more likely, al Qaeda took its eye off the American homeland as the promised theater of operations once American ground troops began dealing with Islamic terrorists in Iraq. As we near five years after September 11, note how less common becomes the expression “not if, but when” concerning the next anticipated terror attack in the U.S.
Some believe that the odyssey of jihadists to Iraq means we created terrorists, but again, it is far more likely, as al Qaeda communiqués attest, that we drew those with such propensities into Iraq. Once there, they have finally shown the world that they hate democracy, but love to kill and behead–and that has brought a great deal of moral clarity to the struggle. After Iraq, the reputation of bin Laden and radical Islam has not been enhanced as alleged, but has plummeted. For all the propaganda on al Jazeera, the chattering classes in the Arab coffeehouses still watch Americans fighting to give Arabs the vote, and radical Islamists in turn beheading men and women to stop it.
If many in the Middle East once thought it was cute that 19 killers could burn a 20-acre hole in Manhattan, I am not sure what they think of Americans now in their backyard not living to die, but willing to die so that other Arabs might live freely.
All of our achievements are hard to see right now. The Iraqis are torn by sectarianism, and are not yet willing to show gratitude to America for saving them from Saddam and pledging its youth and billions to give them something better. We are nearing the third national election of the war, and Iraq has become so politicized that our efforts are now beyond caricature. An archivist is needed to remind the American people of the record of all the loud politicians and the national pundits who once were on record in support of the war.
Europeans have demonized our efforts–but not so much lately, as pacifist Europe sits on its simmering volcano of Islamic fundamentalism and unassimilated Muslim immigrants. Our own Left has tossed out “no blood for oil”–that is, until the sky-rocketing prices, the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, and a new autonomous Iraqi oil ministry cooled that rhetoric. Halliburton is also now not so commonly alleged as the real casus belli, when few contractors of any sort wish to rush into Iraq to profit.
“Bush lied, thousands died” grows stale when the WMD threat was reiterated by Arabs, the U.N., and the Europeans. The “too few troops” debate is not the sort that characterizes imperialism, especially when no American proconsul argues that we must permanently stay in large numbers in Iraq. The new Iraqi-elected president, not Donald Rumsfeld, is more likely to be seen on television, insisting that Americans remain longer.
A geography more uninviting for our soldiers than Iraq cannot be imagined–7,000 miles away, surrounded by Baathist Syria, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and theocratic Iran. The harsh landscape rivals the worst of past battlefields–blazing temperatures, wind, and dust. The host culture that our soldiers faced was Orwellian–a society terrorized by a mass murderer for 30 years, who ruled by alternately promising Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish collaborationists that cooperation meant only that fewer of their own would die.
The timing was equally awful–in an era of easy anti-Americanism in Europe, and endemic ingratitude in the Muslim world that asks nothing of itself, everything of us, and blissfully forgets the thousands of Muslims saved by Americans in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Somalia, and the billions more lavished on Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians.
And here at home? There are few Ernie Pyles in Iraq to record the heroism of our soldiers; no John Fords to film their valor–but legions to write ad nauseam of Abu Ghraib, and to make up stories of flushed Korans and Americans terrorizing Iraqi women and children.
Yet here we are with an elected government in place, an Iraqi security force growing, and an autocratic Middle East dealing with the aftershocks of the democratic concussion unleashed by American soldiers in Iraq.
Reading about Gettysburg, Okinawa, Choisun, Hue, and Mogadishu is often to wonder how such soldiers did what they did. Yet never has America asked its youth to fight under such a cultural, political, and tactical paradox as in Iraq, as bizarre a mission as it is lethal. And never has the American military–especially the U.S. Army and Marines–in this, the supposedly most cynical and affluent age of our nation, performed so well.
We should remember the achievement this Memorial Day of those in the field who alone crushed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, stayed on to offer a new alternative other than autocracy and theocracy, and kept a targeted United States safe from attack for over four years.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.