There is by now only one constant in the entire sad Iraqi saga since the brilliant three-week victory of 2003, and the subsequent violent reconstruction that followed. In our collective exasperation almost all the bad news from the front is due to someone else’s stupidity; any good reports are always the result of one’s own insight and sobriety. The result is irony, but also amnesia about what was written and said in the recent past. Consider the paradoxes we’ve witnessed.
We were paralyzed for a year over Ambassador Joe Wilson’s carnival-like mission, in part due to the prompt of his wife at the CIA Valerie Plame, to find out whether Niger sold, or tried to sell, yellowcake to Saddam. Meanwhile unmentioned is the fact that all the time 1.2 million pounds of yellowcake continued to sit in a warehouse in pre- and postwar Iraq. We chose a special prosecutor to find the culprit who, in some sort of supposed conspiratorial retaliation to Wilson’s flamboyant but erroneous claims, divulged the employment status of his wife. The result is that the special prosecutor found the culpable party, but ensured that he is free from indictment, and indicted and convicted the person who, we know, did not first divulge Ms. Plame’s identity — the object of the original inquiry.
The war was initially damned as a naked effort to grab cheap, accessible Middle Eastern oil. The war is now damned as naïve and foolish in empowering our enemies to manipulate and sell high-priced Middle Eastern oil.
Iraq is considered a puppet state when its officials express a desire for a continued U.S. presence to transition it to full security; it is considered fully autonomous when one of its politicians talks of a desire for us to leave promptly.
Iraq was supposedly failing because it lacked the proper model of the truly multilateral, U.N.-fully- sanctioned, NATO-led effort in Afghanistan, where we fought al-Qaeda on the proper ground on which they had planned 9/11. And now? The failed war in Iraq has succeeded and the good war may have turned bad?
In 2003 al-Qaeda sent thousands of jihadists to Iraq in a supposedly brilliant effort to widen the war. We, in contrast, “took our eye off the ball” by fighting, defeating, humiliating, and routing them there. The defeated are seen as insightful; the victorious foolhardy, the only constant being what the United States does is always misdirected, what our enemies do consistently inspired.
In 2004 critics asked “Where is the Iraqi Karzai?”; in 2008 they will no doubt ask “Where is the Afghan Maliki?”
Afghanistan is still proof of the success of multilateralism? North Korea was once not, but now is? And Iran deserves direct unilateral U.S. diplomacy, and no longer multilateral European negotiation? Somehow the use of American “soft power” and “diplomacy” is never derided as unilateral; military action, even in concert with others, always so.
In 2005-6 the critique was (a) that our military didn’t understand counterinsurgency, had too few troops, sidetracked maverick leaders like David Petraeus, and sought only a military solution, while (b) the Shiite-led Iraqi democracy had no oil-revenue-sharing plan, alienated and ostracized the Sunni tribes, and was a civilian front for Iranian-backed militias. In 2008 all those concerns either being now irrelevant or met, critics shifted to argue that the war was not worth the human and material cost, was responsible for the oil-price hike (although daily world oil production is greater than in 2003), and all the gains temporary.
In 2003, as a state legislator, Barack Obama opposed the war. In 2004, as a state legislator, Obama said, “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” In 2007, Sen.Obama said his desired pullback would lead to all U.S. troops gone from Iraq by March 2008. In spring 2008, he said his timetable of withdrawal would lead to all U.S. troops home within 16 months. In July 2008, he said his desired withdrawal would now be predicated on events on the ground and the recommendations of ground commanders in Iraq. In fall 2008, I suggest, candidate Obama will add that due to his consistent criticism we properly changed our policy in Iraq and found success, and so he would now be as careful in withdrawing troops according to military advice, as others who put them there were reckless in ignoring it.
In worry over Bush’s alleged desire to invade or bomb a hostile and meddling Iran over its nuclear program and infiltration into Iraq, Barack Obama called instead for more diplomacy with Tehran at the highest levels. In worry over a friendly but meddling Pakistan, Obama called for unilaterally invading it.
I think a conventional narrative is slowly forming about Iraq something like the following:
I supported the successful three-week war. I opposed the flawed occupation. My principled criticism, however, led to the salvation of Iraq, which is important and necessary. Yet I did not support the idea of being in Iraq, but now don’t oppose it either. My model of intervention in Afghanistan was the proper one; difficulties there are due either to others’ improper implementation or an unwise diversion of resources to Iraq. If the president employs unilateral action, he should be more multilateral; if multilateral, he is an outsourcer and should by more directly involved and unilateral.
Just remember the details of this narrative, monitor how it is modified to fit the daily pulse of the battlefield, and then almost everything we hear makes sense.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.