March 20 2013
For supporters of the Iraq War such as myself, people who wonder if we got it right every time that haunting Wounded Warriors ad comes on, yesterday was a troubling day.
I didn’t post at all on the Iraq War yesterday, the tenth anniversary of the invasion, because, in the light of how it all ended, I have gone back and forth in my views about the war.
While the RNC put out a mostly silly “Growth and Opportunity Project” report yesterday, which advised such things as being more prepared to go on with Jon Stewart or Colbert, what the GOP really needs to do is think about things that matter. Was the Iraq War a good idea? That is something that matters.
One of the best pieces yesterday was Fouad Ajami’s in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) headlined “Ten Years Ago, an Honorable War Began with Wide Support:”
This was a war waged with congressional authorization, with the endorsement of popular acceptance, and with the sanction of more than a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for Iraq's disarmament….
The public turned on the war when Charles Duelfer, chief U.S. arms inspector for Iraq, issued a report saying that Saddam Hussein had not possessed weapons of mass destruction. Liberals and conservatives alike turned against the war. A “stoical” President Bush “remained true to the proposition that liberty could stick on Arab soil.”
There is no way of writing a convincing alternative history of the region without this war. That kind of effort is inherently speculative, subject to whim and preference. Perhaps we could have let Saddam be, could have tolerated the misery he inflicted on his people, convinced ourselves that the sanctions imposed on his regime were sufficient to keep him quarantined. But a different history played out. It delivered the Iraqis from a tyranny that they would have never been able to overthrow on their own.
The American disappointment with Iraq helped propel Barack Obama to power. There were strategic gains that the war had secured in Iraq, but Mr. Obama had no interest in them. Iraq was the "war of choice" that had to be brought to a "responsible close," he said. The focus instead would be on that "war of necessity" in Afghanistan.
A skilled politician, Mr. Obama made the Iraqi government an offer meant to be turned down—a residual American force that could hardly defend itself, let alone provide meaningful protection for the fledgling new order in Baghdad. Predictably, Iraq's rulers decided to go it alone as 2011 drew to a close. They had been navigating a difficult course between Iran and the U.S. The choice was made easy for them, the Iranian supreme leader was next door, the liberal superpower was in retreat.
The problem with a war is that, once you enter, you have to win. Abraham Lincoln’s bid for a second term was saved by Union victories. It is difficult for America to fight a war now because the press somehow expects us to do it without casualties. A quick win is thus less likely. No matter how just the war, the longer it goes on in a democracy, the less support it is likely to retain. Whatever the war did for the Iraqi people (and I would argue they benefited enormously), it contributed to the election of a man whose foreign and economic policies could have disastrous consequences.
The fall of a dictator in Iraq may have been partial inspiration in the Arab Spring, which quickly became the Arab winter. A different group of people in the White House might have helped channel the energy of the Arab Spring and prevented the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining control of Egypt. A different administration might have made arrangements in Iraq and Afghanistan that preserved our gains.
It is terrible for people who share my views to watch the United States withdraw from the world because, if we are unwilling to act decisively and coherently on the world’s stage, somebody else will. Eliot Cohen had a chilling piece yesterday in the Wall Street Journal of the likely results of American withdrawal.
Americans take for granted the world in which they grew up—a world in which, for better or worse, the U.S. was the ultimate security guarantor of scores of states, and in many ways the entire international system.
Today we are informed by many politicians and commentators that we are weary of those burdens—though what we should be weary of, given that our children aren't conscripted and our taxes aren't being raised in order to pay for those wars, is unclear. The truth is that defense spending at the rate of 4% of gross domestic product (less than that sustained with ease by Singapore) is eminently affordable. …
Perhaps the clever political scientists, complacent humanists, Spenglerian declinists, right and left neo-isolationists, and simple doubters that the U.S. can do anything right are correct. Perhaps the president should concentrate on nation-building at home while pressing abroad only for climate-change agreements, nuclear disarmament and an unfettered right to pick off bad guys (including Americans) as he sees fit.
But if history is any guide, foreign policy as a political-science field experiment or what-me-worryism will yield some ugly results. Syria is a harbinger of things to come. In that case, the dislocation, torture and death have first afflicted the locals. But it will not end there, as incidents on Syria's borders and rumors of the movement of chemical weapons suggest.
A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states. A world, in short, where the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must, and those with an option hurry up and get nuclear weapons.
It is not, as Cohen observes, a pleasant picture. But the U.S. has bungled its foreign policy so badly that many of us find ourselves, attracted by Rand Paul’s domestic ideas, willing to flirt with his isolationism. So now it is clear why I am a day late posting on the Iraqi anniversary: to say that I am only of two minds on the matter of the Iraq War is to underestimate my boomeranging.
Iraq may have been the beginning of an American recessional.
I suspect many conservatives feel my pain.