Lately, it has become popular to recant on Iraq. When 2,500 Americans are lost, and when the improvised explosive device monopolizes the war coverage, it is easy to see why — especially with elections coming up in November, and presidential primaries not long after.
Pundits now daily equivocate in their understandable exasperation at the apparent lack of quantifiable progress. The ranks of public supporters have thinned as final victory seems elusive. It is hard to find any consistent public advocates of the American effort in Iraq other than the editors and writers here at National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, Norman Podhoretz, and a very few principled others.
But for all the despair, note all the problems for those who have triangulated throughout this war.
First, those who undergo the opportune conversion often fall prey to disingenuousness. Take John Kerry’s recent repudiation of his earlier vote for the war in Iraq. To cheers of Democratic activists, he now laments, “We were misled.”
Putting aside the question of weapons of mass destruction and the use of the royal “we,” was the senator suggesting that Iraq did not violate the 1991 armistice accords?
Or that Saddam Hussein did not really gas and murder his own people?
Perhaps he was “misled” into thinking Iraqi agents did not really plan to murder former President George Bush?
Or postfacto have we learned that Saddam did not really shield terrorists?
Apparently the Iraqi regime neither violated U.N. accords nor shot at American planes in the no-fly zones.
Senator Kerry, at least if I remember correctly, voted for the joint congressional resolution of October 11, 2002, authorizing a war against Iraq, on the basis of all these and several other casus belli, well apart from fear of WMDs.
Second, those with a shifting position on the war sometimes cannot keep up with a war that is shifting itself, where things change hourly. And when one has no consistent or principled position, the 24-hour battlefield usually proves a fickle barometer by which to exude military wisdom.
Even as critics were equating Haditha with My Lai, al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda mass murderer in Iraq, was caught and killed. And what was the reaction of the stunned antiwar pundit or politician? Either we heard that there was impropriety involved in killing such a demon, or the former fugitive who was once supposedly proof of our ineptness suddenly was reinvented as having been irrelevant all along.
The Iraqi army — well over 250,000 strong — is growing, and the much smaller American force (about 130,000) is shrinking. How do you call for a deadline for withdrawal when Iraqization was always predicated on withdrawal only after there was no Iraqi dependence on a large, static American force?
After lamenting that the Iraqi government is a mess, we now see a tough prime minister and the selection of his cabinet completed. So it is not easy to offer somber platitudes of defeat when 400,000 coalition and Iraqi troops are daily fighting on the center stage of the war against Islamic terrorism. Someone from Mars might wonder what exactly were the conditions under which a quarter-million Muslim Arabs in Iraq alone went to war against Islamic radicalism.
Third, there is a fine line to be drawn between legitimate criticism of a war that is supposedly not worth American blood and treasure and general slander of the United States and its military. Yet much of the Left’s rhetoric was not merely anti-Bush, but in its pessimism devolved into de facto anti-Americanism.
Senator Durbin compared Guantanamo Bay to the worst excesses of the Nazis. Senator Kennedy suggested that Abu Ghraib, where thousands perished under Saddam Hussein, had simply “reopened under new management: U.S. management.” Democratic-party chairman Howard Dean confidently asserted that the Iraq war was not winnable. John Kerry in his youth alleged that Americans were like Genghis Khan in their savagery; in his golden years, he once again insists that we are “terrorizing” Iraqi civilians. With friends like these, what war critic needs enemies? Americans can take disapproval that we are not fighting “smart,” but they resent the notion that we are somehow downright evil.
Fourth, the mainstream media is now discredited on Iraq, and their drumbeat of doom and gloom is starting to rile more than pleases the public. Aside from the bias that counts always our losses and rarely our successes, we are sick and tired of manipulations like the lies about flushed Korans, forged memos, and the rush to judgment on Haditha. Most weary Americans want at least a moment to savor the death of a mass-murdering Zarqawi, without having to lament that he might have been saved by quicker medical intervention.
Fifth, the historical assessment of Iraq is still undetermined, despite the pontification of former supporters who think they gain greater absolution the more vehemently they trash a war they once advocated.
The three-week effort to remove Saddam Hussein was a landmark success. The subsequent three-year occupation in his place has been messy, costly, and unpopular. But the result of the third and final stage that Iraq has evolved into — an existential fight between Iraqi democracy and al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism — is still uncertain. If we draw the terrorists out, defeat them in the heart of the ancient caliphate, and win the allegiance of enough democratic Iraqis to crush the Islamicists, then our military has won a far greater victory than the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Sixth, note how critics now rarely offer alternative scenarios. All the old gripes such as the paucity of body armor or thin-skinned humvees have withered away. The Iraqi elected government is sympathetic and earnest, so demonizing them ultimately translates into something like “Cut these guys lose; they weren’t worth the effort.” Yes, the American people want out of Iraq, but on terms that preserve the democracy that we paid so dearly to foster.
Even the one legitimate criticism that we were too slow in turning over control to the Iraqis, and that the Bremmer interregnum had too high a public profile, is now largely moot, as Ambassador Khalilzad and Gen. Casey are in the shadows, giving all the credit to the very public Iraqis and taking most of the blame for the bad news.
So we are nearing the denouement of the Iraq war, where we wanted to be all along: in support of a full-fledged and democratically elected government that will either win or lose its own struggle.
Seventh, the old twin charges — no link between al Qaeda and Saddam, no WMDs — are also becoming largely irrelevant or proving untrue. It must have been difficult for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, in their coverage of the death of Zarqawi, to admit that he had been active in Iraq well before the end of Saddam Hussein, along with a mishmash of old killers from Abu Nidal to Abdul Rahman Yasin, the Iraqi American who helped plan the first World Trade Center bombing.
In addition, most abroad were convinced before the war that the CIA was right in its pre-war assessments. The publication of the Iraqi archives points to a real, not a phantom and former, WMD capability — in line with efforts elsewhere in the Islamic world, from Iran to Libya, to reclaim something akin to the old Soviet deterrent.
The costs in Iraq have been high and the losses tragic. But nothing in the past three years has convinced me otherwise than that in a post-September 11 world Saddam had to be removed on ethical and strategic grounds;
‐ or that the insurgency, though unexpected in its intensity, could be put down by a U.S. military that would react and evolve more quickly than the terrorists to changing conditions on the ground;
‐ or that our mistakes, though several and undeniable, are tragically the stuff of war, and so far have not proved to be irreversible or beyond what we experienced in any of our past efforts;
‐ or that the maligned secretary of Defense was right about troop levels and the plan for Iraqization — although demonized for trying to transform the very nature of the American military in the midst of a war;
‐ or that we are engaged in the great humanitarian effort of the age, as “one person, one vote” has brought to the perennially downtrodden Arab Shiites a real chance at equality;
‐ or that the best method of winning this global struggle against fascistic Islamic terrorism remains fostering in the Middle East a third democratic alternative between autocracy and theocracy that alone can deal with the modern world.
Once a democratically elected Iraqi government emerged, and a national army was trained, the only way we could lose this war was to forfeit it at home, through the influence of an adroit, loud minority of critics that for either base or misguided reasons really does wish us to lose. They really do.
— 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.