Politics & Policy

Mirror, Mirror …

Looking at Iraq.

By now everyone sees what he wishes in Iraq — a disaster of many proportions, a necessary war that will still be won. Liberals who used to demand that we promote democracy abroad are fierce critics of Iraqi democracy; conservatives, who want an iron hand dealing with a hostile Middle East, support spending hundreds of billions of dollars in rebuilding Iraqi society.

So it will be left to historians, as has been true in the case of the far-more-costly Korean and Vietnam wars, to adjudicate the final verdict.

#ad#Meanwhile, the war in Iraq has entered yet another manifestation. The fickle American public and its media have switched and flipped on the war as much as they have on Hillary Clinton’s chances — in the last two months she’s been a shoo-in, a has-been, a comeback kid, a loser, and now a contender.

In late 2003, Iraq transmogrified suddenly, from an overwhelmingly popular and brilliant three-week war to remove a genocidal Saddam Hussein, into a bitterly divisive effort of four years to defeat an insurgency that threatened to topple the postwar elected government.

Now, despite the obligatory throat-clearing epithets used by journalists and politicians — “the worst,” “nightmare,” “disaster,” “fiasco,” “catastrophe,” “quagmire” — Iraq is beginning to be seen as something that just might work after all, as the violence subsides and a stable constitutional government hangs on.

Once promised to be the singular issue of the current presidential campaign, the war has receded to background noise of the primaries. An ascendant Barack Obama pounded home the fact that, unlike Senator Clinton, he never supported the removal of Saddam Hussein and always wanted to get Americans out of there as fast as he could; it may well prove that a more circumspect Obama soon won’t want to mention the war and, as hinted by aides, wouldn’t jerk the troops out should he be the next president.

Rarely in American history has a war been so often spun, praised, renounced, disowned, and finally neglected. And the result is that a number of questions remain not just unanswered, but unasked. We have not been hit since 9/11, despite the dire predictions from almost everyone of serial attacks to come. Today if a Marine recruitment center is bombed, we automatically assume the terrorist to represent a domestic anti-war group, not al-Qaeda — a perverse conjecture impossible to have imagined in autumn 2001.

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In response to that calm, the communis opinio is that we hyped the threat, needlessly went to war, mortgaged the Constitution — just collate the rhetoric from the Obama and Clinton campaigns — when there was never much of a post-9/11 threat from a rag-tag bunch of jihadists in the first place.

What is never discussed is how many Islamists flocked to Iraq, determined to defeat the U.S. military — and never got out alive. Or, more bluntly, how many jihadists did the U.S. Army and Marines kill in Iraq rather than in Manhattan?

#ad#And what was the effect of that defeat not only on the jihadists, but also on those who were watching carefully to see whether the terrorists should be joined in victory or abandoned in defeat? Who really took his eye off the ball — the United States by going into Iraq, as alleged, or Osama bin Laden and his jihadist lieutenants by diverting thousands there to their deaths, as is never mentioned?

When the war started, contrary to the current rhetoric, Osama bin Laden was popular in the Middle East, and the tactic of suicide bombing had won a sizable following. But after the war was fought, and despite years of anti-American rhetoric, bin Laden has never polled lower while support for suicide murdering in the Muslim Middle East continues to decline.

In 2001, the Arab street apparently thought, for all the macabre nature of suicide bombing, that it at least had brought the United States to its knees and such a takedown was considered a good thing; in the latter reflection of 2007 and 2008, it worried that such a tactic brought the United States military to its region, and guaranteed the defeat of jihadists along with any who joined them.

Iraq, as no one ever imagined, ended up as a landscape in which the United States and al-Qaeda would battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world on the world stage. And in Anbar Province, the jihadists are losing — losing militarily and losing the support of the local Sunni population. Again, whereas the conventional wisdom holds that we have radicalized an entire generation of young Muslims, it may turn out instead that we have convinced a generation that it is not wise after 9/11 to wage war against the United States. In any case, there is no other constitutional Arab government in the Middle East that actively hunts down and kills al-Qaeda terrorists.

When the insurgency took off in late 2003, Europe immediately triangulated against the United States, courted the Arab world, and hoped to deflect jihadists by loudly proclaiming they were vehemently against the war in Iraq. This is in itself was quite remarkable, since the entire recent expansion of the European Union to the south and east had been predicated only on a partnership agreement with the United States to extend NATO membership — alone ensuring these weak new European affiliates American military protection.

Irony abounds: Since 2003, Europe — not the United States — has experienced a series of attacks, and near-constant threats, ranging from bombed subways and rail stations to Islamic demands to censor cartoons, operas, films, and papal exegeses.

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It is in Europe, not in post-Iraq Kansas, where a Turkish prime minister announces to Muslim expatriate residents that they must remain forever Turks and assimilation is a crime; it is in post-Iraq Europe, not Los Angeles, where politicians and churchmen talk of the inevitability of Sharia law; and it is in post-Iraq Europe, not the United States, where honor killings and Islamic rioting are common occurrences.

Why? A number of reasons, but despite all the misrepresentation and propaganda, the message has filtered through the Middle East that the United States will go after and punish jihadists — but also, alone of the Western nations, it will risk its own blood and treasure to work with Arab nations to find some alternative to the extremes of dictatorship and theocracy. Europe, in contrast to its utopian rhetoric, will trade with and profit from, but most surely never challenge, a Middle Eastern thug.

#ad#Iraq is purportedly a mess left to the next president. In fact, by January 2009 it may well be far less a strategic problem than was Saddam Hussein’s regime, the no-fly zones, Oil for Food, and the punishing UN embargoes. And the next president may well see a stabilized country in which periodic steady American withdrawals, not an insurgency, are the norm — and far fewer jihadists with far fewer supporters worldwide.

George Bush will be blamed for getting us into Iraq and staying there — he’s already seen some of the lowest poll ratings since Harry Truman or Richard Nixon. The next president will be praised for beginning to withdraw troops in 2009 on a schedule established in late 2008. After all, if a pundit’s column these days has a headline blaring “A Plan for a Way Out” or “Quagmire,” we automatically assume a way to unlock the Democratic primary mess, not leave Iraq. In the first ten days of March, before the most recent losses, there was one American combat fatality among 160,000 troops at war.

Iraqi was always an optional war, one that could either do great harm to our national interest and security or offer great advantage to the United States and the region, depending on its costs and the ultimate outcome. Between 2005 and 2006, public support for the war was mostly lost — trisection of the country and American withdrawal were considered our options. In 2008 there is instead a real chance that the original aims of the war — establishing a constitutional government, defeating terrorism militarily, and convincing the Arab population to reject terrorism — are at last possible.

It is the nature of this strange war that we know far more about who failed and what went wrong, far less about who succeeded and what went right. We believe that the dividends of the war — a constitutional government in Iraq and a stunning defeat of radical Islamic jihadists — happened by accident, while the 4,000 dead are the responsibility of our leaders, not the tenacity of the enemy or the costs of waging war in general. The more that the violence subsides and the costs wind down, the more Americans in a near recession will complain of the expense. The more the Iraqis finally begin to exercise responsible political power, the more Americans will lament there is no way to translate tactical victory into long-term strategic advantage.

Iraq, you see, long ago has become a mirror in which we all see only what we want.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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