Iraq: A Long-Run Victory?


A reader writes:

I forget ... why were you for the war again? Were you 'fantastically wrong' about Iraq because:

a) The president lied to you about WMD

b) The president criminally mismanaged the war which might otherwise have been a good thing

c) Once liberated, the Iraqis proved unable to govern themselves after all

d) Abu Ghraib

If Iraq stabilizes and the refugees return and civil society begins to take hold again and Iraq ends up with a government that everyone agrees is a tremendous advance over what they had before, would you still have been 'fantastically wrong' or just wrong? Or would you be wrong now? Now I'm befuddled...

I was wrong because a) one critical element of the case for war was simply not there (whether lied about or misrepresented or incompetently judged or so riddled with "evidence" from the tortured or the criminal that the info was FUBAR); b) the president did mismanage the war so grotesquely that it clearly made the US less safe, empowered Iran, gave al Qaeda a new lease on life, opened the borders of Iraq to al Qaeda, permitted the ransacking and looting of much of Iraq, and led to tens of thousands of deaths of innocent civilians; c) I fatally misread the history of Iraq and did not fully appreciate the depth of the sectarian divides, the absence of any national identity that could effectively supersede tribal loyalties, and the trauma that Saddam's regime had imposed; d) I did not realize that the Bush administration would effectively suspend the Geneva Conventions in the war thus leading to the atrocities across the theater that did a great deal to undermine the moral basis for a just war.

Even if, in a decade or so, we see something approaching a normal society in Iraq (which would be the first time in centuries), I will still have been fantastically wrong. Just because in the very long run, it is possible that a decision made was retrospectively the right one, that was not the basis on which I supported the war and lambasted its opponents. I'm not going to pull that excuse. And the costs of the enterprise - both human and financial - continue to bear no rational relationship to the benefits we haven't even begun to see. To have embroiled ourselves in a large, open-ended, $3 trillion occupation of a country that is clearly no longer a country, and to trap the bulk of the military in that theater while threats proliferate globally, and to have no viable exit strategy ever: this is a colossal, historic error. And all this holds even if it turns out in the very long run to have made Iraq a more normal society than it was under Saddam.

I have a clear conscience on it. I didn't intend evil. I thought in advance it was a just war. I believed the evidence procured, I now know, from torture, that Saddam had contacts with al Qaeda.

Removing Saddam and liberating the Kurds remain alloyed goods. I am also glad I didn't oppose the war for the wrong reasons - because I hated Bush before I had good reason to or because America could never do right. I still believe in giving any president the benefit of the doubt in such a national crisis. I will do so again - but not, of course, with this president.

I sure hope that things turn out for the best. God knows that what the US and coalition troops have done there has been heroic and, if it does turn out OK in the very long run, it will be their victory and achievement - and no one else's. I know wars are messy - but this has not been a war with usual mistakes. It was a war waged with criminal incompetence for far too long. It is still completely unclear whether Iraq will resume its hot civil war as US troops depart next spring. It is unclear whether a war against Iran will alter the entire equation as well. It is unclear whether the Turkish border will explode, or whether, as the West's troops remains trapped in Iraq, a serious crisis of terror and WMDs will emerge from Pakistan or elsewhere on the planet. That these events have not taken place yet doesn't mean they won't, and doesn't mean they might not have while we were stymied in Iraq. The risk we were taking in retrospect was irresponsible. And it's far too easy to use unknown future events - let alone the decline in violence in the last couple of months - as vindication for a decision that was wrong by any measure on its own terms and in its own time-line.

But let's hope, shall we, that some day some defense can be made of it. God knows the Iraqis need it and the fallen deserve it. For their sake, I still hope passionately that this will be seen as a long-term not-catastrophe - or maybe even something better. But I cannot see the last five years as evidence for much optimism on that count. And, while one can and should be grateful for some minimal counter-insurgency competence from Petraeus this year, I'm not going to extrapolate madly from the last five weeks.

(Photo: David Furst/Getty.)