Paul Pillar

Libya and the Iraq War Dead-Enders

Some of those who most ardently promoted the disastrously ill-advised military expedition in Iraq that was launched eight years ago this month just never want to give up believing (or at least arguing, whether or not they really believe it) that the war was a good idea—despite the enormous human and material costs, the diverse damage to U.S. standing and U.S. interests, and the persistent violence and instability in Iraq itself. Charles Krauthammer's column today, which tries to find some kind of vindication or justification for the Iraq misadventure in current issues involving Libya and upheaval elsewhere in the region, is a good example. It would make sense to disregard what he says as the rationalizations of someone whose cognitive dissonance just won't allow him to let go, were it not for the implications of some of what he says for policy issues yet to be resolved.

There is no shortage of material in the column that is divorced from reality. There is, for example, the statement that the “sustained U.S. military engagement” in Iraq was needed “to push back totalitarian forces trying to extinguish the new Iraq,” forgetting that the main violent thing that the U.S. war unleashed was a sectarian civil war over the distribution of power within the new Iraq.

There also is Krauthammer's judgment, while conceding that Iraqi democracy is “fragile and imperfect,” that if Egypt were as politically developed a year from now as Iraq is today, “we would think it a great success.” That speaks to how drastically standards of success were lowered as the United States sank into the Iraqi quagmire. Such a judgment also seems oblivious to the increasingly harsh authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki's government. A front-page article in today's Washington Post provides a stomach-churning account of how Iraqi security forces allegedly beat up human rights activists and journalists during a recent protest.

Then there is how the columnist tries to use the relative absence of anti-Americanism in the most recent popular uprisings in the Middle East to deny that the Iraq War “poisoned the Arab mind against America.” Ample evidence, including opinion polling over the course of the past decade, shows that such poisoning did in fact occur. The war also poisoned a lot of Arab minds against the idea of political change and democratization. It has only been in these more recent times, in which U.S. support for democracy has not taken the form of trying to force it on Middle Easterners through the barrel of a gun, that some of the poison has dissipated and the anti-Americanism has become less apparent. (Note how there is no hesitation in associating policies of the previous administration with something good that is happening under the current one. Funny how it doesn't seem to work the same way with bad things, such as recessions and deficits, even when most of the bad was clearly bequeathed by the previous administration.)

The particular mistake among Krauthammer's assertions I feel especially moved to correct—because I was personally involved in the relevant diplomacy—is that “Qadhafi was so terrified by what we did to Saddam & Sons that he plea-bargained away his weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, the Libyan ruler's dramatic turnabout, in which he gave up his involvement in international terrorism and instead became a counterterrorist partner of the West, as well as giving up his unconventional weapons programs, had begun years earlier. Qadhafi was responding to the pressure and ostracism of multilateral sanctions and to the prospect of an improved international standing if he came clean about the bombing of Pan Am 103 and was willing to deal seriously with the United States on the issues of most concern to the United States. The secret negotiations that confirmed and codified all this were begun in 1999, under the Clinton Administration. It was the willingness of the United States to engage Qadhafi's regime that made this all possible, not some prospect that military force would be used to remove him—let alone, as with the ouster of Saddam, that force would be used to oust him no matter how he tried to adjust his policies.

If you want an accurate and insightful take on how a changed U.S. approach to troublesome regimes in the Middle East has worked, run your eyes down from Krauthammer's column to the op ed just below it. The piece, by Dalia Dassa Kaye of the Rand Corporation, is about the influence of Iran (that “discredited and murderous regime,” in Krauthammer's words) in the Middle East. Kaye points out that “over the past decade, and certainly since Saddam Hussein was removed from Iran's enemies list, Iranian regional influence has increased as U.S. leverage has declined.” But now, with a U.S. approach that does not emphasize going after rogue regimes with guns blazing and instead letting Middle Easterners take credit and responsibility for political transformation, this has been changing. “Today,” says Kaye, “Iran's populist, anti-American, direct outreach to Arab publics...appears less relevant when the people are taking matters into their own hands.”