Wealth of Nations January 2007

No Easy Exit From Iraq

"Bad as the situation in Iraq may be, a precipitate retreat would make things worse"

The least-bad feasible option is to follow, by and large, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, minus the indication of a prompt withdrawal, whether or not preceded by one last push. Pursue the diplomatic possibilities, strive for progress on Israel-Palestine, apply all pressure on the Iraqi government to foster reconciliation with the Sunnis—and hang in there. To be sure, this course is a horrible thing to contemplate. It leaves American forces in danger with no clear prospect of success. The only thing to be said for it is that it is on balance less likely to fail, in a way that gravely damages American interests, than a policy of "announce a schedule and withdraw."

Reflecting on the course of this conflict, what lessons should advocates of the war such as myself draw from what has happened?

I cannot find refuge in saying that the Bush White House screwed up a basically good idea. That is too easy. There is no question that the administration made huge mistakes in the war's prosecution—above all, in committing too few resources to the endeavor, and in seeming entirely unprepared for the bad-case scenario that subsequently unfolded. But so much of what war advocates believed to be true has turned out to be wrong that I doubt that even a well-prosecuted war would have secured America's aims.

The whole misadventure began, of course, with the egregious intelligence failure over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. I don't believe that the administration outright lied about this; they spun the evidence to make a stronger case, but I think they believed that the WMD were there. However, I take no comfort in this: I find it scarier than an outright lie. What use are the intelligence agencies if they can get such a thing wrong? How on earth did that happen? Democrats' desire to indict the administration for dishonesty—though amply justified in one way—is a pity in this respect. It has distracted attention from this astonishing intelligence failure. There should be a continuing national outcry over the error, not over the supposed lie.

The other false assumption was that the prospect of post-invasion civil war—a risk that many skeptics emphasized—could be contained. I vastly underestimated the shocking ferocity of sectarian animosity in Iraq. (After what happened in post-Yugoslavia, that is a difficult mistake to forgive.) If far more resources had been committed from the beginning to restoring internal security, the outcome might have been different.

But the rage that Iraq's rival Muslim communities are directing at each other makes one doubt it.

Having said that, and though I wish I had never supported the war, I still cannot regard it as completely misconceived. That view supposes that everything would have been fine if only we had left well alone. Key assumptions underlying the case for invasion turned out to be wrong—but not every assumption. Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of the United States; he was intent on acquiring WMD; and the sanctions regime that had imperfectly contained him after the Gulf War was breaking down. Had there been no war, a nuclear-armed Iraq led by Saddam would by now be a not-so-distant prospect. And a successful war would have empowered the United States to face down Iran, now also on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons. Those were eminently worthy objectives. In Iran's case, unfortunately, we may yet discover just how worthy.

Things have not worked out that way. On present accounting, just as the skeptics said, the direct and indirect costs of the war—including, not least, the costs to America's reputation and security—have greatly exceeded the benefits. And the world is a far more dangerous place as a result.

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