Politics & Policy

The Wonders of Hindsight

Looking back is a sure way to stumble.

Most of the blame game being played over the Iraqi occupation — and always with the wisdom of hindsight — is now irrelevant.

Should more or fewer soldiers be in Iraq?

That’s basically settled: There will be no sizable increases in our troop presence, but gradual downsizing, as more provinces must come under Iraqi control and we seek to avert Iraqi perpetual dependence. Debating how many soldiers should have been deployed in the three-week war of 2003 and its aftermath is about as helpful in the present as fighting over culpability for the surprise at the Bulge.

But who disbanded the Iraqi army?

It doesn’t matter now — the new army is nearing 300,000 strong and growing. It will either rise to the occasion or fail. The decision of 2003 to leave it scattered is ancient history.

Still, wasn’t de-Baathification far too sweeping?

Perhaps, but three years later that’s not an issue any more either, now that former Hussein government officials have long been welcomed back into the military and civilian bureaucracy.

Weren’t we slow in turning over control to the Iraqis?

Absolutely, but now, after three elections, Iraq is autonomous, and American proconsuls are not on television hogging the news of someone else’s future.

Wasn’t it terrible that Tommy Franks left in the middle of a long theater campaign, as if he sensed that Centcom’s three-week victory might well devolve into his three-year messy aftermath?

Yes, but so what? He can no longer do a thing either to save or to lose Iraq.

It used to be blood sport to blame the supposed flawed architects and implementers of the Iraqi war and occupation — neocon advisers to President Bush, the proconsul Paul Bremer (whose blazers were emblematic of his out-of-touch, unrealistically optimistic, rather than workable and good enough, solutions), or the nice, but deer-in-the-headlights Gen. Sanchez.

Even if these purported scapegoats have been accurately portrayed, and their mistakes account for the current pessimistic Iraqi prognosis — neither of which I grant — what are we to say about those currently in charge? Even critics of the war have praised the Middle Eastern Ambassador Khalizad, the savvy Gen. Petraeus, the Arab-speaking Gen. Abizaid, and the best and the brightest fighters in the field, such as a Lt. Col. Kurilla or a Col. McMaster. All of these players are not only in, or about to be back in, Iraq, but are pivotal in crafting and adapting American tactics and strategy there.

Many wars metamorphize into something they were not supposed to be. Few imagined that the Poland war of 1939 would within two years evolve into a war of annihilation involving the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, Japan, and Italy. So too with the third Iraqi war of 2003 (following the first 1991 Gulf War, and the second, subsequent 12-year no-fly zone stand-off) that has now become a fight against jihadists for the future course of the entire Middle East.

What matters now is not so much what the war was or should have been, but only what it is — and whether we have learned from our mistakes and can still win. The answer to both questions is yes. We have the right strategy — birthing (through three elections already) an autonomous democracy; training an army subject to a civil government; and pledging support until it can protect its own constitutional government.

Few American officers are talking about perpetual occupation or even the need for more troops, but rather about the need for a lighter footprint, bolstered by teams of Special Forces and air support, to ensure Iraqi responsibility for their own future,. And the key to success — a diplomatic squeeze on the Sunnis to suppress terrorists in Nineveh and Anbar provinces in exchange for Shiite guarantees of more government inclusion — is now the acknowledged goal of both the Iraqi and American governments.

Thousands in Iraq accept that they have crossed the Rubicon, and they must either make their own democracy work or suffer a fate worse than that of the boat people and the butchered in Southeast Asia when the Americans left.

As for how to ensure against this disastrous outcome, multilateral talks are no magic bullet, as we see from the failed EU3 efforts with Iran and the stalled six-party negotiations over the North Korean problem. The “more rubble/less trouble” solution that the Russians employed against the Chechnyans in Grozny is out of the question for a humane United States. The U.N. is no answer as we have seen from serial genocides from Rwanda to the present killing in Darfur.

No, only the United States, and its superb military, can stabilize Iraq and give the Iraqis enough time and confidence to do what has not been done before, and what apparently no one any longer thinks will be done: a surviving, viable democratic government in the heart of the dictatorial Middle East. Though the necessary aims are clear, they are not quickly and easily attained. Everyone understands that there is no single military answer to Iraq, but rather that the political solution depends on soldiers providing enough security long enough for free commerce and expression to become established. So rather than agonize endlessly over past perceived errors, we must realize that such lapses are not unprecedented in our military experience and focus on whether they are still correctable.

By the standards of Grenada, Panama, and Serbia — where few American died and some sort of tenuous consensual government emerged fairly quickly — Iraq is indeed messy. But if we grant that the effort to replace Saddam with democracy in the heart of the ancient caliphate is a far formidable enterprise, and thus akin to the challenge, and cost, of taking an Okinawa or saving a Korea, then our losses and heartbreak so far are not extraordinary.

For all the Democrats loud criticism, if they do regain Congress, they would probably rely on the present expertise of a Khalizad, Abizaid, or Petraeus, and not the often quoted wisdom of three years past of a Gen. Shinseki or Zinni. I doubt they will bring back Gen. Wesley Clark to fix the “mess.” They will either have to cut off funds, ensure a pull out before the end of the year, and then watch real blood sport as reformers are butchered; or they will have to trust that our present military and civilian leadership has learned the hard lessons of three years in Iraq, and can find a way to stabilize the nascent democracy.

How do we define success in Iraq, in the context of a dysfunctional Middle East where elections in Lebanon and Palestine bring turmoil, the “correct” multilateral NATO war in Afghanistan is still raging, and we still can’t do much to find bin Laden in a “friendly,” but nuclear and Islamic, Pakistan? No mention is necessary about an Algeria still reeling from a horrendous bloodbath in the 1990s, the nightmare that was Qadhafi’s Libya, perennial Syrian roguery, the theocratic disaster in Iran, or all the other butchery that passes for the norm in the Middle East.

We can only ask: Are the tribal leaders of the troubled Anbar province now more likely to join the government or the insurgents? Are the old controversial barometers of Iraqi wartime electrical production, GDP, and oil output currently falling or stable? Is the successful Kurdistan seceding or in fact still part of Iraq? Is the Shiite leadership now de facto a pawn of Iran, or still confident about its role in a democratic and autonomous Iraq? Do the communiqués and private correspondence of al Qaeda in Iraq reflect cocky triumphalism or worry over losing? Do Iraqi elected leaders praise us or damn us and ask us to leave? In a global war against Islamic jihadists, who have killed thousands of Americans here at home, should we lament that we are now fighting and killing them as they flock to distant Iraq?

As we head for the November elections, most politicians have renounced their paternity of the now-orphaned American effort in Iraq. And pundits of summer 2003 have not just had second thoughts about Iraq in the autumn of our discontent in 2006 — but very public third thoughts about whether they ever really had their enthusiastic first ones.

The odd thing is that, for all the gloom and furor, and real blunders, nevertheless, by the historical standards of most wars, we have done well enough to win in Iraq, and still have a good shot of doing the impossible in seeing this government survive. More importantly still, worldwide we are beating the Islamic fundamentalists and their autocratic supporters. Iranian-style theocracy has not spread. For all the talk of losing Afghanistan, the Taliban are still dispersed or in hiding — so is al Qaeda. Europe is galvanizing against Islamism in a way unimaginable just three years ago. The world is finally focusing on Iran. Hezbollah did not win the last war, but lost both prestige and billions of dollars in infrastructure, despite a lackluster effort by Israel. Elections have embarrassed a Hamas that, the global community sees, destroys most of what it touches and now must publicly confess that it will never recognize Israel. Countries like Libya are turning, and Syria is more isolated. If we keep the pressure up in Iraq and Afghanistan and work with our allies, Islamism and its facilitators will be proven bankrupt.

In contrast, if we should withdraw from Iraq right now, there will be an industry in the next decade of hindsight exposés — but they won’t be the gotcha ones like State of Denial or Fiasco. Instead we will revisit the 1974-5 Vietnam genre of hindsight — of why after such heartbreak and sacrifice the United States gave up when it was so close to succeeding.

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.

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