Politics & Policy

Conventionally Ignorant

The same old simplicities about Iraq.

Washington is an echo chamber. One pundit, one senator, one reporter proclaim a snazzy “truth” and almost immediately it reverberates as gospel. Conventional wisdom about Iraq is rarely questioned. A notion seems to find validity not on its logic or through empirical evidence, but simply by the degree to which it is repeated and felt to resonate.

Take the following often repeated statements.

“There is no military solution to Iraq.

Well, obviously it is true in the sense that in this postmodern age we were not going to see another Curtis LeMay flatten a Fallujah or Ramadi.

But the miraculous political achievement of postwar Japan or Europe was the dividend of a military solution: the destruction of wartime fascism and the prevention of its reemergence by vigilant military policing.

Likewise, there will only be peace in a constitutional Iraq when citizens believe that they can safely participate in government, express themselves somewhat freely, prosper economically, and feel safe from internal and external threats.

In order to do this, an army and a national police force that purport to prevent thugs, militias, and terrorists from killing those with whom they disagree, are required. In war-torn Iraq, such forces will only emerge as confident and capable when they know that the U.S. is stronger than their enemies, and can offer them a window of security to train and strengthen.

So a political solution is only possible if there is security — and security is only likely if someone first kills, defeats, or routs the enemy. True, the promise of political equity and stability is a carrot that eases the military’s task by winning hearts and minds to enlist in the requisite armed effort. But at some point early in the process, some very brave souls in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army have had to wade into the swamp of the seventh century to stop frightening killers from plying their craft against the weak and helpless.

“We haven’t tried regional diplomacy.”

This is another red herring. Regional players all had interests in Iraq. The problem was that they were never quite our own.

So before talking, they first wanted to try their hand at mischief and advantage, and only later, when and if forced, would resort to diplomacy. Iran wanted to create a Shiite buffer state; the Gulf monarchies and Jordan to ensure that Sunni insurgents won and thereby to remind their own dissident minorities to respect the status quo; Turkey to thwart an independent Kurdistan; and Syria to do anything that caused the United States trouble.

In 2003, and again in 2007, these regional powers wanted to talk with the United States since they had a hunch we were winning — and thus they might be able to find advantage from, or were terrified of, the local power broker. But in 2004-6 we were perceived as mired in Iraq, weak, and not worth the verbiage.

Then again, as the volatile battlefield changed once more, suddenly we had some renewed clout with the Saudis to cut off the money to Sunni extremists; likewise with the Jordanians and Syrians to monitor their borders with Iraq; and similarly with the Iranians to reduce their shipments of weapons into Iraq. If there is a shred of truth in the latest National Intelligence Estimate which alleges that Iran ceased its nuclear bomb program in 2003, it was not because of some miraculous “diplomacy,” but only because of the fear that the mullahs (cf. the contemporary about-face of Libya’s Col. Gaddafi) might end up like the recently deposed Saddam Hussein.

Whatever the Bush administration’s own druthers, the United States is always engaged in some sort of regional diplomacy on the periphery of Iraq. Yet its success is predicated largely on constantly changing perceptions of our relative clout — itself since 2003 hinging on the progress of the war and our relative strength. Iraq was always a great gamble, since success there would amplify our diplomatic options in the Middle East as much as defeat would diminish it.

“We need to talk to Iran.”

We always have had some sort of dialogue ongoing in a backchannel capacity with Iran. But mostly these negotiations over the last thirty years have centered on problems caused by Iranians: they take hostages — and want to discuss the price of their release; they send out terrorists — and want to discuss the price to call them off; they cheat on international accords — and want to discuss the price to comply.

Iranians are friendly with what otherwise would be satanic atheistic North Koreans not just to buy missiles and nuclear technology, but also in admiration of what they see as successful North Korean cheat/get rewarded diplomacy — energized by a nuclear deterrent.

Please don’t suggest that we “once” had more contact under prior administrations than now. If true, it was only because Iran’s enemies (the Taliban and Saddam) were then still around. Such nostalgia is like saying we used to have good relations with the Soviets in the mid-1940s because we both hated Hitler and Hitler was next door to them. True, to some extent — but then who would wish to bring Hitler back?

The problem of structuring formal talks about substantive issues, however, is largely with Iran, not us. Bill Clinton learned that well enough when his rapprochement with the theocracy was cut short by the terrifying specter of an American president shaking hands with a theocrat. Such cozying up to the Great Satan apparently was perceived as fatal to the Iranian image of a revolutionary jihadist state.

If the surrounding Iraqi, Afghan, and Lebanese democracies stabilize, and the Sunni world coalesces into a general anti-Iranian bloc, then Iran will be more than eager for serious talks at any level it can get them. If we fail in Iraq, or Iran gets the bomb — as Teheran thought between 2004-6 would soon be likely — then they will show little interest in conversation. History suggests that democratic states are initially always the more eager for engagement than tyrannies that talk only when their backs are against the wall or their appetites are for a time sated.

“We can’t impose democracy on anyone.”

Two points need to be made about this canard. First, it is hard to think of too many democracies that did not emerge out of some sort of violence or the threat of such. Constitutional systems in Argentina, the Balkans, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan — and the United States — to name only a few, all followed an armed conflict or at least the specter of force. The end of the Cold War — i.e. the defeat of the Soviet Union — alone freed Eastern Europe.

War is not the only catalyst for a new democracy, but there is a common enough connection. Anti-democratic forces, both internal and external, are usually the more plentiful and they don’t like to surrender their power unless they are forced to.

Second, for all the charges of institutionalized preemption and unilateral cowboyism, after six years we are still talking about attacks on just two countries — Afghanistan and Iraq. Both had a uniquely bad history with the United States, whether as the placenta of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, or as an on again/off again adversary dating back to 1991.

We haven’t invaded anyone else. We did not bomb or attack odious regimes like Syria or Iran — and aren’t very likely to. The anomaly is not that we are force-feeding democracy down the throat of the Middle East, but rather that lately we quit promoting it to allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even when we know that ultimately such liberalization is the only way to defuse tension on their Arab Streets and disrupt the symbiosis between terrorism and dictatorship.

“Iraq is the worst (fill in the blanks) in American history.”

Critics are not allowed to stop history at a convenient point — at Abu Ghraib, the pull-back from Fallujah, or the bombing of the dome at Samara — and then pass final judgment whenever they wish. If Lincoln had quit after Cold Harbor, Wilson after the German Spring offensive of 1918, or Roosevelt after the fall of the Philippines, then their presidencies would have failed and the U.S. today would be a far weaker — or perhaps nonexistent — country.

History instead will assess Iraq when it ends — either in defeat through a precipitous American withdrawal and collapse of Iraq, or in victory after a gradual redeployment of American troops as Iraqi forces step in to ensure the stability and security of a constitutional state.

We don’t yet know the verdict on the American investment in the war, since its aggregate costs and its aftermath are obviously not yet over. But already we sense that the worst thing our enemies — al Qaeda, Iran, Libya, or Syria — feared was the establishment of a constitutional government in place of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the accompanying principle that autocratic governments of the region cannot acquire dangerous arsenals to support terror and to bully their neighbors.

That we haven’t had another September 11th, while bin Laden’s popularity has plummeted in the Islamic Middle East — if both trends continue — will factor positively in any analysis. Again, how much blood and treasure were worth the thwarting of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in a post-9/11 landscape won’t be adjudicated for years to come. But we should remember that such an assessment won’t hinge on the difference between war and peace per se, but rather between having the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in power, and the costs and benefits of getting them out and replacing them with something far better.

In conclusion, we do know of one assertion about Iraq that really is true. The conventional wisdom of pundits, reporters, and politicians is predicated on their own daily perceptions of whether we are winning or losing the war — and thus what they say is true today they may well say is not tomorrow.

– Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.

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