The Corner

The Iraq Question Is the Iran Question — At Least It Should Be

As my weekend column indicates, I am not as down as Patrick, Eliana, and some of my other colleagues on the hypothetical Iraq question the media is pressing on GOP presidential candidates —​ viz., Was it a mistake to invade, knowing what we now know? It’s a very fair point that the question should not be asked solely of Republicans – Hillary Clinton and other Democrats who supported the war should be grilled, too.

Maybe I come out differently on this because I don’t accept the narrowing of the question to a matter of whether Saddam had a WMD program and stockpiles to the degree foretold by intelligence we now know was faulty. If that were all there was to it, I’d concur that there is nothing to be gained about this line of inquiry —​ as Patrick says, if President Bush was right to think Iraq had the WMDs but “almost certainly could not have known” it did not, then it is pointless to try to corner Republicans into admitting Bush made a mistake.

But I don’t think, and never have, that the WMD were the most significant part of the equation. That’s why I argued repeatedly that too much emphasis was placed on them.

Many of us who supported the Iraq war based that support on the principles enunciated in the Bush doctrine: Attack the jihadists wherever they operate and make rogue states understand that if they support the terrorists we will treat them as enemies. In that calculation, Iraq was an enemy regardless of whether it had WMD. It obviously was not the worst such enemy —​ Iran was. And it obviously was a potentially more dangerous enemy if it had WMD that could have been shared with jihadists. Iraq, nevertheless, was surely in the camp of states that, using Bush’s “with us or against us” metric, was against us.

I am more concerned about the mistakes based on what we knew then, not on what we know now. Those of us who believed in the Bush doctrine (I still do) never saw the war as limited to two states – Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, the enemy has never seen it that way. There were interconnected, cross-border jihadist networks, backed by various Islamist governments that had complex relations with each other. The most consequential of these latter culprits was Iran.

So whether it was a mistake to invade Iraq depends on how, at the time, the invasion was most likely to affect the enemy overall.

If the invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the idea of pressuring and ultimately supplanting the Iranian regime with a government that was less inclined to abet jihadists and export sharia supremacism, that would have been the right thing to do —​ not a mistake. But if the invasion was undertaken with no real plan on what to do about Iran – if it diverted from the Bush doctrine’s pledge to treat terror sponsors like Iran as enemies, and if it instead envisioned that a (futile, prohibitively expensive) democracy-building project would produce a bulwark against Iran (rather than strengthening the mullahs’ hand, as has happened), then I would have no hesitancy in calling it a mistake.

To me, the most revealing part of Senator Rubio’s grilling by Fox News’s Chris Wallace was Rubio’s contention that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and, therefore, the Iraq invasion was not a mistake even if things did not turn out as we had expected. This is worrisome tunnel vision.

Was the world better off without the dictators Mubarak and Qaddafi? Would it be better off without Assad? It depends on the context and the likely aftermath. Was post-Mubarak Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood an improvement for the world? How about post-Qaddafi Libya – now (and quite predictably) a failed state run rampant with anti-American jihadists? And what if life after Assad means swaths of what used to be Syria under the thumb of the Islamic State and other Islamists dominated by the Brotherhood and the local al Qaeda franchise?

This is not a paean to tyrants. There are tough judgment calls to be made and mistakes happen in every war. Grading our performance calls for understanding who we are fighting and why.

The major mistake we have made in the global conflict is our failure to acknowledge the enemy —​ the totality of the enemy —​ and, relatedly, our adherence to the delusion that Islam is a “religion of peace.” The latter is problematic because it suggests that Islamic cultures can be led seamlessly to democracy and anti-jihadism. That, in turn, can lead to the fantasy that if we invest blood and treasure to try to turn a place like Iraq into a pluralist democratic society, the example this will set will induce jihadist regimes like Iran to change, relieving us of the hard Bush Doctrine work of confronting them and forcing them to change.

This want of a realistic strategic vision of the conflict is what makes the Iraq invasion a mistake. If our biggest problem in 2003 (as today) was Iran and its sponsorship of Islamic supremacism (the Sunni al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas strains, as well as the Shiite Hezbollah version), then the invasion of neighboring Iraq has to be measured by how the Bush administration planned to deal with Iran, which stood to profit enormously from Saddam’s ouster.

Plainly, there appears to have been no plan to deal with Iran other than to hope that Iran would perceive its interests to be served by democracy and stability in Iraq. This was the implausible hope of the Bush State Department and the Iraq Study Group; it is the implausible hope of the Obama administration —​ Iran as a stabilizing influence, maybe even an ally. To those of us who follow Iran closely – its hegemonic ambitions, its incorrigible promotion of anti-American terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere – it is and has always been a dangerous delusion.

It is not a matter of whether Saddam Hussein was a monster. That’s a given. The question is whether we’d have been better off leaving things the way they were if, as appears to be the case, we did not have a plan and the political will to deal with Iran. Knowing what we knew then, Iran was a huge problem; knowing what we know now, Iran has predictably become a worse problem.

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