Politics & Policy

What Happened to Iraq?

So many opinions on the war, so few of them constant.

Suddenly there are no longer any more litmus tests — remember the Democratic primary bickering in autumn 2007? — over who was, and was not, always against the war in Iraq. There are no more hearings in which a Sen. Obama or Clinton seek to outdo each other in grandstanding condemnations of the war effort.

We see no more discounted “General Betray-Us” ads in the New York Times. The protestors on our street corners have taken down the “No blood for oil!” signs and replaced them with “Hands off Iran!” placards. A Sen. Durbin or Rep. Murtha is quiet about supposed American war crimes and cruelty. That Barack Obama said he wanted all U.S. troops out by March 2008 is quietly forgotten. 

In other words, it is now a good time to reflect back on the last five years of conventional wisdom about the war. When the histories of the Iraq War are written — in contrast to the dispatches published in mediis rebus by critical journalists and born-again antiwar critics — expect to see a much different narrative from the conventional ignorance that became the gospel these last five years.

The Good Versus Bad War?

For years now, we have been lectured that Iraq was the hopeless unilateral preemptive war — one that diverted attention from Afghanistan, the proper multilateral retaliation. But the truth is that both were singular wars with their own particular challenges. Afghanistan remains uniquely difficult because, unlike Iraq, it is a landlocked, hard-to-supply tribal land with a nuclear Islamic neighbor, Pakistan, that provides almost perpetual sanctuary for cross-border terrorists.

That NATO and later the UN were involved in Afghanistan only meant that a Germany or France would make an appearance there in a way they did not in Iraq — not that they would fight shoulder-to-shoulder with America in real numbers and without restrictions. That several countries were deployed to Afghanistan under the aegis of NATO was of not much more significance than that others went to Iraq as a coalition of the willing. Note that as Iraq quiets, Afghanistan, with its particular challenges, does not necessarily thereby get any easier. Expect new sloganeering to replace “took our eye off the ball.”

In that regard, the expertise acquired in Iraq more likely will help — than the wear and tear on the military hindered — the efforts in Afghanistan. Without defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, the only other option to have met and engaged such Islamic terrorists in real numbers the last five years would have been to invade Pakistan.

The Record of the U.S. Military

The performance of our military in Iraq was never suspect, and our soldiers were hardly the terrorists, criminals, and storm troopers as implied at various times in slanders voiced by Sens. Durbin, Kennedy, and Kerry or Rep. Murtha — and in a series of failed and reprehensible Hollywood movies. Instead, the U.S. military removed the genocidal Saddam Hussein, stayed on to fight a second war and defeat and humiliate Al Qaeda, and fostered democracy in the heart of the ancient caliphate. Both the quality of our troops and the generalship of Gen. Petraeus matched anything in American military history, and will be recognized as such once the significance of their achievement is recognized.

The story of the National Guard was not one of exhausted and demoralized reservists, but of skilled, often more senior soldiers whose civilian expertise enhanced reconstruction at every turn, as anyone can attest who has seem them at work in Iraq.

Honorable — and Disingenuous — AntiWar Opposition

There were two honorable positions in opposing the war. One was the hard left and paleoconservative opposition to an optional war for a variety of moral and practical considerations. When over 70 percent of the public favored the invasion, and such support even widened with the fall of Saddam’s statue, most such critics nevertheless maintained their then unpopular opposition.

The second group of principled critics were those that confessed that the unforeseen opposition to reconstruction, evident by late 2003, convinced them, albeit belatedly, that the cost in blood and treasure would not be worth the goal of a democratic Iraq. During the optimism of the subsequent Iraqi elections, and the recent spectacular success of the surge, such critics still insisted the war was misguided and their newfound opposition irrevocable. Note here that revisionists did not blame others, or claim they were brainwashed, but simply acknowledged that their initial expectations were wrong and the war thus in retrospect unwise.

That said, there was certain reprehensibility to the positions of most other opportunistic critics, whose Protean fluidity was not even empirical, but rather, predicated on the 24-hour news cycle and the perceived pulse of the battlefield. Some were former neoconservative zealots, whose saber-rattling about Iraq dated back to the Clinton administration; but when the occupation became difficult, they not only withdrew their support as our troops came under fire, but claimed either that they were misled or, worse still, someone else was to blame.

An equally unfortunate but convenient claim for erstwhile pro-war pundits and politicians was that they were duped by hyped-up threats of WMD, and thus otherwise would have never supported the war. Remember, however, that the Congress authorized 23 reasons to remove Saddam, the majority or writs well beyond worries over WMD — a prewar consideration voiced by intelligence agencies as diverse as the French and Egyptians.

Rather than blaming Donald Rumsfeld or George Tenet, the principled position of the “my three-week perfect war was loused-up by your five-year occupation” critic would have been an honest admission that they underestimated the potential of Iraqi insurgency, and that even its defeat was simply not worth the commensurate American costs.

Instead, what we have now are dozens of loud, pick-and-choose opportunists who were for the war, then soured on it, then came back some during the purple-finger elections, then got angrier during the February 2006 insurgency, then damned the surge, then grew quiet during the Petraeus success — always, in retrospect, citing a particular past phase of their ongoing metamorphoses when it now seems to best amen the current status in Iraq.

Few recalled that the errors and miscalculations in Iraq paled in comparison to the tragic lapses in the Civil War, World War I, or World War II that cost the lives of tens of thousands, but nevertheless did not imperil eventual American victory. But in the utopian landscape of the contemporary West, Iraq — as is the case of almost every other contentious issue — followed the logic of what did not prove perfect could therefore not be good.

The No-military-solution Canard

Any reasonable observer could make the banal observation that Iraq required a combination of political savvy to reunite various factions, and military force to kill or quiet the terrorists. In fact, only the U.S. military — and, in particular, its evolving tactics in 2007 — provided the window of security necessary for Iraqi civilians to step up and participate in politics and economic reconstruction.

Yet, given the echo chamber in Washington, one could predict that almost anytime a DC politician pontificated that “there is no military solution in Iraq” at that exact moment there was a dire need for armed action to put down insurgents and terrorists to restart the political process.

In truth, the cumulative toll on al Qaeda over five years, the Anbar military awakening, David Petraeus’s change of tactics and aggressive military innovations, and the surge of 30,000 additional fighters were as important to restoring stability to Iraq as earlier political lapses were to prompting the initial unrest.

The Worst Whatever . . .

We have heard ad nauseam that Iraq was the worst — fill in any synonym for fiasco one wishes for Iraq. Given the long history of the United States — the terrible summer of 1864, the ill-preparedness before World War II, the naiveté about the postwar Soviet Union and Mao’s China, the surprise and early flawed conduct of the Korean War, or the tragedy of Vietnam in 1973-5 — such an appraisal was simply political hyperbole. In truth, in the present post-September 11 climate, Iraq always had the potential of making the war against Islamic extremism and terrorism much worse or much improved, depending on our ability to take out Saddam, and foster a constitutional replacement.

Note well that, as we look back to the landscape of 2001-3, we can now appreciate the present progress that we then did not anticipate. America has not been hit again — but not for want of trying on the part of dozens of terrorist plots. The two worst regimes in the Middle East are gone; constitutional states are in their place. Al Qaeda is discredited and in disarray, its leadership in large part dead, in hiding, or in captivity. Bin Laden’s popularity and Middle Eastern support for suicide bombing — sky-high before Iraq, peaking during the Abu Ghraib hysteria — are now at all-time lows. European anti-American politicians are largely gone; governments in Germany and France are unusually pro-American. Boutique table-talk about distant American preemption has been replaced by elemental fears of Russian aggression and energy leverage on the frontiers of Europe. The European worry is not any more that the American Sheriff is popping off his six-shooter, but that he may have ridden out of town and left the timid townspeople to their own devices.

While it is popular to say that we are hated abroad, two billion in India and China are not particularly anti-American, and Eastern Europeans respect Americans more than their shaky Western European brethren. In short, if Iraq remains stable, support for the American effort to promote Iraqi freedom will grow in direct proportion to when it waned when many saw our setbacks as precursors for defeat.

Sadly, most have no ethical bearings, and wrongly judged our presence in Iraq in terms of wishing to identify with a winner and to distance themselves from a perceived loser. The irony, of course, is that in the months to come many abroad will begin to respect our support for Iraqi democracy only for the self-interested reasons that it proved successful rather than principled.

A final word about George W. Bush. It was not his rhetorical skills, political agility, or shared prewar intelligence that convinced old Democratic political pros, Washington analysts, and savvy pundits to support the attack on Saddam Hussein and to stay on and allow Iraq the chance at constitutional government.

Instead, many, by their own logic and political calculations, came to the same conclusion as the president to remove Saddam. But whereas the president stayed the course, and suffered the dire consequences during dark times, not all of the latter did. And there will come a time, when Iraq is stable and successful, that this constancy of President Bush when most around him lost their heads also will be acknowledged — as it always has been in America’s past wars, when history alone has the last word.

– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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