Politics & Policy

The Iraq War Is Redeemable

Understanding the stakes.

If 2006 was an awful year for Iraq, then 2007 has been significantly better. Although the central government is frustratingly ineffective and Iraq remains a fragile and riven nation, we are seeing indisputable evidence of progress in the security realm, as well as political reconciliation from the bottom up. Iraq, which was hurling toward civil war a year ago, is now a calmer country.

Total attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since August of 2006. Sectarian violence has sharply decreased in Baghdad, with civilian murders in Baghdad down more than 50 percent since Operation Fard al-Qanun — Arabic for “Enforcement of the Law” — began earlier this year. Civilian murders in Baghdad have in fact reached their lowest levels since just before the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed in February 2006. And we’ve made huge headway in human intelligence.

Cities and provinces like Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala are being reclaimed. A series of targeted operations designed to intensify the pursuit of extremist elements across Iraq is forcing al Qaeda and Shia extremists into ever-shrinking areas. Over the coming weeks, according to military commanders, we will conduct quick strike raids against remaining extremist sanctuaries and staging areas. Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run, having absorbed tremendous blows from the American military, which under the leadership of General Petraeus is executing its counterinsurgency strategy with staggering efficiency.

Yet for many critics of the war — including some who initially supported Operation Iraqi Freedom — these things matter little, or not at all. They have simply given up on Iraq, believing the mistakes have been too plentiful, progress too slow, the number of American deaths (more than 3,700) too many, and political reconciliation too distant. War critics have made the determination that we should leave Iraq, come what may — and so any evidence of progress is seen as a threat to their settled judgment.

But mistakes, weariness, and even a collapse of will among a significant portion of the population and the political class are not unprecedented in war. Hopes of an easy victory are often dashed — and then wars become grinding affairs that entail awful sacrifices and enormous costs. And yet such wars can be redeemed by the outcome. Resolve, when joined with the right (even if belatedly right) strategy, can retrieve victory from difficult circumstances.

In America’s Civil War, for example, many in the North thought the war would end quickly and in victory. In the words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Herbert Donald:

“Many Northerners were euphoric at the outbreak of war, confident that the Union with its vast natural resources, its enormous superiority in manufactures, its 300 percent advantage in railroad mileage was bound to prevail. Surely its 20,000,000 inhabitants could easily defeat the 5,000,000 in the Confederacy. Seward thought the war would be over in ninety days. The Chicago Tribune anticipated success ‘within two or three months at the furthest,’ because ‘Illinois can whip the South by herself.’ The New York Times predicted victory in thirty days, and the New York Tribune assured its readers ‘that Jeff. Davis & Co. will be swinging from the battlements at Washington… by the 4th of July [1861].’”

Then came the First Battle of Bull Run, which shook the confidence of both Lincoln and the Union; and the Second Battle of Bull Run, which threw Lincoln and the Union into a state of near despair. “Alone in his office,” the Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates has written, “Lincoln mulled over his oceans of trouble, mulled over the vast uncertainties of this war, and confessed that events had spun out of his control.”

“The people are impatient,” Lincoln wrote. “[Secretary of the Treasury Salmon] Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?” Lincoln asked in 1862.

After that came the carnage of Antietam; setbacks in the 1862 midterm elections; and the loss at Fredericksburg. “Disgust with the present government is certainly universal,” one man observed. “Even Lincoln himself has gone down at last. Nobody believes in him anymore.”

“We are now on the brink of destruction,” Lincoln himself said. “It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope.”

By early July 1864, Professor Donald writes, “a visitor found Lincoln deeply depressed. War weariness was spreading, and demands for negotiations to end the killing were becoming strident.” Calls for General Grant’s resignation (McClellan had long since been replaced) were common — and so were discussions of replacing Lincoln on the Republican presidential ticket. “From all corners of the Union came waves of indignation against Lincoln,” according to Oates, “that he could sanction such senseless carnage, that he could put a butcher like Grant in command.”

High casualties among Union soldiers, Grant’s impasse at Petersburg, and weakening resolve in the North led Lincoln to issue a blind memorandum to his Cabinet members on August 23, 1864, saying that “it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected.” If that had happened, Lincoln would today rank among our least successful presidents.

But then General Sherman gave President Lincoln all that he needed. “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” Sherman wired Lincoln in the aftermath of Sherman’s occupation of Atlanta. Lincoln went on to win re-election on November 8, and a week later General Sherman began his march to the sea. After that came the capture of Petersburg and the occupation of Richmond. General Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. The Civil War was over, the slaves were freed, the union was preserved — and more than 620,000 lives had been lost in a nation of 31 million. A war of equal magnitude today would kill roughly six million Americans.

Was the Civil War worth the effort, worth the cost, worth the carnage? For most people today, the question is essentially rhetorical; after all, the president whose tenure was consumed by the war has his face chiseled in granite on Mt. Rushmore. But if you had asked Americans in the North (let alone in the South) the same question in 1862, or 1863, or 1864 — or even asked them that question in the aftermath of the surrender of the Confederacy, when reconstruction was going poorly and the wounds of the Civil War were still deep and fresh — many people would have said the war was senseless, the slaughter unbearable, and the conflict should be stopped, come what may.

Yet Lincoln, who made significant errors in the war, always understood the stakes of the struggle. He made adjustments along the way even as he refused to bend on the moral meaning of the Declaration and the need to preserve the Union. Eventually the war was redeemed and America was made whole.

“Here was the greatest and most moving chapter in American history,” according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bruce Catton, “a blending of meanness and greatness, an ending and a beginning. It came out of what men were, but it did not go as men had planned.”

Wars almost never do.

* * * *

Henry Kissinger has written that history teaches by analogy, not by maxims. And even teaching by analogy is a tricky affair. We often look to history and draw false hopes and wrong conclusions. Yet certain lessons can apply to different eras and different circumstances. And one thing history teach on a consistent basis is that achievements we look back upon with pride are often the product of a difficult journey, filled with mistakes and misjudgments that were corrected very late in the day — but corrected soon enough to lead to a decent outcome. With the war in Iraq going better than most could have imagined just six months ago — with the current finally (if not completely) in our favor — this is something worth bearing in mind.

The Iraq war is redeemable.

Peter Wehner is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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