Many commentators on Iraq had no strong ideas about the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein, but often predicated their evolving views on the basis of whether we were perceived as winning or losing — and later made the necessary and often fluid adjustments. So in light of the changing pulse of the battlefield, it is time once again to examine carefully a few of the now commonplace critiques of the Iraq war.
1. We took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan by going into Iraq, thereby allowing the Taliban to regain the advantage.
Any two-theater war can result in less resources allotted to one of the two fronts. But such multiple-front wars, whether in World War II or the Cold War, have never stymied the United States military. More importantly, if we are truly in a global war against Islamic extremists — as al-Qaeda itself reminded us when it announced that Iraq was the key front in their jihad against infidel crusaders — then the problem is not necessarily fighting the insurgents in Iraq, but whether it is a theater conducive to our aims and resources — and can be won.
In other words, Iraq simply upped the ante of a larger war, promising disaster if we lost, and enormous advantages if we won. Progress in Iraq is already having positive effects in Afghanistan, where an experienced American counterinsurgency force is fighting extremists who know that their kindred are on the verge of losing militarily and politically in Iraq, and are afraid that the same bitter calculus now applies to them.
In the first years, the odds were with the terrorists — given indigenous Muslim local populations, the hostile neighborhood of a Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and anti-war fervor at home and abroad. But once the U.S. military defeated al-Qaeda in Anbar, the population turned on Islamic terrorists, and the elected Iraqi government gained stature, then Islamists in and out of Iraq suffered a terrible defeat.
We learned to fight a war of counterinsurgency and win hearts and minds far from home; they lost an insurgency — and with it the support of the local and once naturally sympathetic Muslim population. Note that suddenly journalists, intelligence analysts, and politicians are struck by al-Qaeda’s implosion, as the Muslim street turns on radical Islamists, who themselves are torn apart by internal ideological schisms.
While many critics remain too heavily invested in antiwar positions staked out between 2003–7 to cite the war as a contributory cause, the obvious catalyst for al-Qaeda’s fiasco is its terrible performance in Iraq. Remember, if Americans adjusted their own support for the war on their perceptions of the success or failure of the U.S. military, why wouldn’t millions in the Middle East do the same with radical Islamists like al-Qaeda, whose fortunes on the battlefield have only gone from bad to worse?
2. Bush lied about the war and entered it under the false circumstances of fears of WMD and Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda.
Bush erred in focusing on WMDs when the Senate and House approved over 20 writs for war, all of them as valid now as they were in October 2002. That said, it is hard to find a single prominent congressional critic of the war who has made the case that the administration itself altered intelligence information, doctored reports, or had substantially different assessments than those provided to Congress or offered up by foreign governments. The reason recent critics of the war such as Sen. Rockefeller are utterly unconvincing in their allegations of administration malfeasance is that the record shows that they themselves had access to the same information, and often outdid the President in their prewar rhetoric and saber-rattling about Saddam.
But again, the battlefield, rightly or wrongly, colors these controversies. In a world in which there is no longer a Saddam Hussein (who would now have had his hands on trillions of dollars in oil revenue), a Libyan WMD program, and Dr. Khan’s nuclear export business, the proliferation issue is becoming less contentious. (If one were to believe the National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ceased its weapons-grade nuclear track opportunely right after Saddam’s capture). Since 2003, thousands of Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda’s notables have been killed, and the organization routed and discredited; it is hard to see how Iraq has not had positive effects in curbing proliferation and damaging the organization that was responsible for 9/11. Moreover, disputes about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s post-Afghanistan odyssey, assorted terrorists in Saddam’s Baghdad in 2003, or al-Qaeda in Kurdistan during Saddam’s rule become less contentious with the knowledge that al-Qaeda, between 2003–7, tried to win, and then lost, Iraq.
3. Mistakes in Iraq were legion and irreversible.
It is better to see such controversies in terms of long- and short-term consequences. Examine the two most discussed — the Iraqi army and troop levels. Disbanding the Iraqi army without providing temporary financial support for young males with military skills was disastrous. Yet in the long-term, building a new army without tens of thousands of hard-core Baathists — as was true of the de-Nazification program with German army in 1946–7 — offered a greater chance for eventual success.
Did we send too few troops? Apparently we had enough manpower to take out Saddam, which we did brilliantly in three weeks — a force determined partly in reaction to the first Gulf War, when current critics then alleged that we had needlessly sent over far too many troops, both our own and those of the unwieldy coalition.
Evaluating the surge is more complex, since in a vast theater the size of Iraq, an increase of a little more than 20 percent in troop strength probably does not per se win wars. We forget now that many supporters of the surge were calling for 80,000-100,000 more troops in 2004–7. The 30,000 troops was a compromise figure, given our commitments elsewhere.
As important as the 30,000 reinforcements were, just as critical were three other factors associated with it: a signal to both Iraqi friends and enemies that we were staying on and fighting to win; a radical change in tactics from counterterrorism based in compounds to counterinsurgency intended to protect the local populations from terrorist reprisals; and the appointment of Gen. Petraeus as senior commander in Iraq who won the confidence of the Iraqis; silenced critics at home; and energized his officers on the ground with a new commitment to victory.
Again, there were tragic mistakes — focusing on WMDs as a sole casus belli, the pullback from the first siege of Fallujah, and bellicose Presidential rhetoric coupled with operational tentativeness — all of them regrettable, none of them fatal or comparable to the disastrous foul-ups of World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.
4. Democratization was naïve and bound to fail, given the realities of the tribal Middle East.
In fact, the promotion of constitutional government, however clumsy our efforts in 2003–4, was the only chance the U.S. had after the fall of Saddam Hussein to stabilize the country and hurt our terrorist enemies. No development infuriated al-Qaeda more than U.S. support for elections and a constitutional Iraq that undercut the slander of a 21st-century crusade to annex the ancient caliphate, and invested the Iraqi people themselves in the fight against terrorism for their own future. Iraq is not comparable to the Hamas plebiscite, in that its elections were in concert with a ratified constitution and a result of an American-led effort to depose Saddam Hussein.
One of the most surreal developments of the war has been the Left’s caricature of American idealism and our support for a democratic Iraqi government — a brave group of reformers who have been more tarred and demonized by American politicians than have been their al-Qaeda enemies.
Should we see a President Obama, and he realizes that Iraq is working, expect the Left to cease its criticisms of neocon democracy fantasies, and instead adopt Iraq’s democracy as yet more proof of Obama’s hope-and-change idealism in foreign policy.
5. The real winner of the war was Iran.
In the short-term, yes — Iran benefited from the removal of its traditional enemy, Baathist Iraq, and from the initial pan-Islamist rallying against the U.S. presence in Iraq. But in the long-term, should Iraq succeed, nothing will be more destabilizing to Iran than to have a free society next door, where Shiites say, write, and read what they wish, and do so in pluralistic fashion. Again, the ante has been raised. Should Iranian-backed militias lose in Iraq, the theocracy will have suffered a terrible defeat, at a time it diverts precious oil dollars to failed military adventures while its silenced population rations gas. Iran’s theocratic government must either incite a U.S. preemptive strike, or destroy Iraqi democracy — or it is doomed.
6. President Bush’s presidency was ruined in Iraq.
If we were to lose the war, then yes. But should we win, should a constitutional government stabilize, should al-Qaeda keep unraveling, and should the hiatus of terrorist attacks against Americans at home and abroad continue, then historians will rank Bush in Trumanesque terms: a similarly orphaned presidency that ended disliked — even as it crafted a strategy to defeat global Islamic terror by taking the fight to the heart of the Middle East, while establishing proof of America’s good intentions by fostering constitutional government that offered Iraqis an alternative other than the usual Middle East non-choice of theocracy or autocracy.
Bush was terribly damaged by a series of poor spokesmen, his own bellicose soundbites of 2002–3, a series of tell-all defections of former intimates and officials, and an inability to cut U.S. consumption of imported petroleum. But that said, years from now, historians will look at the record and the results, not the present rhetoric, and his legacy could well be — “He kept us safe.”
7. Our military is nearly ruined and the war was never worth the cost.
We have paid a high price for our efforts with thousands of dead and wounded, and billions spent. But if the deterioration of a-Qaeda continues, America is kept safe, and the Middle East at last has some alternative to the dismal autocratic norm — one that curbs future oil-fed extremism — then Iraq will be the most important American achievement since the end of the Cold War. If we lose or quit, and Iraq devolves along the lines of the badlands of Pakistan, then, yes, the losses were not worth it.
For all the wear and tear on our military, recruitments are up, we have developed the most sophisticated and experienced anti-insurgent force in the world, and we are just beginning to shake-up the entire military by promoting a new generation of brilliant officers who came of age in the cauldron of Iraq.
In the end, the U.S. military has achieved the near impossible by removing the worst government in the Middle East and fostering what has a real chance to become by far the best. In some sense, whether Iraq was worth the high cost depends on whether one thinks the present-day liberal and humane democracies in Europe, Japan, and Korea were likewise worth the past, and far more terrible, price that America paid in blood and treasure to secure their enduring freedom.