Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
For those who never considered that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed any threat to the United States, the idea that we might “win” is, by definition, inconceivable. For those who worried that Saddam’s regime might one day provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, the end of his regime was a “win” the day Baghdad fell. For that small and much-maligned group who regarded the invasion of Iraqi as an act of risk management, weighing the costs of war against the risk of leaving Saddam in place and hoping for the best, the notion of victory has been swamped by a debate over its cost.
And the cost has been high—far higher than I believe was necessary. That cost was driven by colossal mismanagement, chronic indecision about strategy, tactics and even goals, confusion about whom to trust among Iraqis and allies alike, a failure to deal effectively with Iranian and Syrian involvement in the conflict, and a shocking level of incompetence within the Bush Administration.
It is, of course, impossible to prove how things might have gone differently had we adopted a different strategy, reposed trust, confidence and authority from the beginning in different Iraqis, and shown tactical flexibility (most importantly, knowing when things were not going well and adapting quickly to rapidly changing circumstances). I do not believe the insurgency, which only emerged several months after Baghdad fell, was inevitable, or that its early, limited success could not have been dealt with effectively. The change in strategy and tactics (and operating command) that are the key to the improvement that has followed the “surge” surely suggests that earlier adoption of the things that are now working might have spared us much of the pain that preceded General David Petraeus’s arrival in Baghdad.
This is not ancient history, and despite the widely, if grudgingly, acknowledged progress of the surge, the war is far from over. The issue of American objectives in Iraq, as well as the conduct of the war, is crucial to understanding what “winning” means, and what the consequences of victory are likely to be.
There is much confusion about our objectives in Iraq. This is hardly surprising since the Bush Administration itself has at various times embraced substantially different views of why we went into Iraq and why we must remain. The President’s post-invasion emphasis on building a democracy in Iraq, an objective that has come to dominate his statements on the war, has obscured the fact we went into Iraq to preempt a vaguely defined threat for which there appeared to be compelling intelligence—intelligence that proved to be wrong in some but by no means in all respects.
Contrary to the view of many critics of the war, we did not go into Iraq mainly to impose democracy by force in some grand, ambitious (and naive) scheme to transform Iraq and then the region as a whole into a collection of happy democracies. It is notable that the critics who charge that this was our core objective never cite evidence to support their claim.
Clearly, had it not been for the attacks of 9/11, we would never have invaded Iraq. If Saddam had provided solid, confirmable evidence of the destruction of the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction he was believed to possess, we would not have invaded—even though the crucial issue was the capability to produce chemical, biological or even nuclear material and weapons—not just the possession of them.
Without military action we could not have decisively managed the threat from Iraq. It is now managed: Saddam will not be sharing WMD with anyone. Judged against that measure, we have already won in Iraq, despite all the failures of policy and implementation that followed the destruction of his regime. To be sure, that victory has come at a terrible price, and whether it can be sustained remains to be seen. After all, we once “won” against the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to see the Taliban regime, aligned as it was with Osama bin Laden, emerge to threaten us directly in a way Afghanistan never did under Soviet occupation. But in the larger picture, driving the Soviets from Afghanistan, even if the means were crude and even if we suffered later from unintended consequences, was an important factor in our victory in the Cold War, which was the larger picture.
There is a larger picture with respect to Iraq, as well, and there is reason to hope that it will vindicate what we have done there. We have demonstrated in Iraq that we will act to protect ourselves. We have shown that we will fight terrorists where we find them, even when the cost is high. We, and now much of the world, have begun to take terrorism seriously. This is in good measure because we have been willing, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to go beyond the instruments of law enforcement and plaintive pleas to ineffective international institutions on which we once relied. We have, as the always wise Fouad Ajami put it, created, “from Egypt to Kuwait and Bahrain, a Pax Americana [that] anchors the order of the region. In Iraq, the Pax Americana, hitherto based in Sunni Arab lands, has acquired a new footing in a Shiite-led country.”
Such success as we have achieved in Iraq, like the strategic and tactical failures there that went before, is due largely to the (bewilderingly episodic) leadership of President Bush. He found the courage to offer the surge when he was under immense pressure to withdraw. He understood that the advice coming from his Secretary of State amounted to accepting a thinly masked defeat while the advice from Congress amounted to defeat, period.
The gains could be reversed, of course, and if some of the candidates for president have their way, they will be. But it is already significant that Iraq has faded as a partisan political issue, not because there is a shortage of Democrats—the implacable “leadership”, Pelosi and Reid come to mind—who want us out whatever the consequences, but because the turnaround has dimmed the star of withdrawal, retreat and isolation.
After the ordeal that Iraq and the belated but absolutely necessary mobilization against Muslim extremism have imposed on us, it would be the final, tragic irony if what has been achieved were squandered by a new administration more concerned with honoring a foolish, irresponsible commitment to the antiwar sentiment of left-wing Democrats and isolationist Republicans than to the safety of the nation.