"The Defeat Of Al Qaeda"

The new - and, one must say, agreeable - debate over Iraq is whether, even if we manage to get out of there without full-scale catastrophe now, the entire adventure has been worth it. Obama's op-ed this morning emphatically says no. Pete Wehner makes the opposite case:

It is far from clear that Iraq will be judged a strategic blunder at all, let alone the “greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy.” It is now plausible to argue that the Iraq war will lead to a defeat of historic proportions for al Qaeda. It has already triggered a massive Sunni Muslim uprising against al Qaeda, a repudiation of violent jihadism from some of its original architects, and a significant shift within the Muslim world against the brutal tactics of jihadists. Iraq is also, right now, the only authentic democracy in the Arab world. And Saddam Hussein, the most aggressive and destabilizing force in the Middle East for the last several decades, is dead, and his genocidal regime is now but an awful, infamous memory.

The last part is, it seems to me, obviously true. Whether removing Saddam was worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands, displacement of millions, empowerment of Iran, ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, $1 trillion, $145 a barrel oil, up to 5,000 coalition deaths, and the resurgence of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is another matter.

Whether we could have found a less traumatizing, expensive, fatal path past Saddam will be for historians to judge. But it is worth remembering, as Pete somehow omits, that the fundamental casus belli - the WMD threat from Saddam - was false. And we removed Saddam over five years ago. The war since is what we are discussing.

So then the next argument: "a defeat of historic proportions for al Qaeda." We can hope. But it remains a fact that the only reason al Qaeda needed to be defeated on such a scale in Iraq is because the US created the perfect conditions for its flourishing: anarchy, social disintegration, and sectarian clashes. To have cleaned up the mess we made is not some kind of world-historical step forward. It's treading water. And it must also be noted that in many ways, al Qaeda defeated itself by its extreme tactics. The same could be said for al Qaeda in Jordan, for example. Democracy in Iraq? Well, it is a fragile achievement so far, but it would be very premature to believe it's stable or long-lasting or irreversible.

The question now is whether these tentative signs of calm in Iraq are a good opportunity to leave or a reason to stay for the very long haul. Or whether we'll just stagger on in some kind of unresolved middle.