Fantasies of the Iraq Hawks

March 22, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Iraq

Fantasies of the Iraq Hawks

Is examining hypotheticals really better than examining what actually happened?

There probably isn’t much more to be said about the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But perhaps there’s something to be said about what’s been said about the invasion on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. The musings that have emerged on the subject offer revealing insights into the state of the country’s foreign-policy discourse after nearly a dozen years of constant war.

For some, it is an occasion to lament what is viewed by critics as a hopelessly flawed presidential decision that could never have yielded any outcome other than the calamity we now see in Iraq and environs. Consider the David Ignatius column in Thursday’s Washington Post. Ignatius supported the war in the period leading up to it because he saw a possibility that it could foster a greater degree of freedom and political pluralism in the region. It’s understandable that such a prospect would stir the imagination of someone who had spent more than two decades covering these tragic lands, as Ignatius had.

But now he thinks otherwise. Indeed, he writes, “I owe readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense.” Nodding to the war’s lingering defenders, who insist it all could have worked out fine if the occupation hadn’t been botched or had U.S. troops remained indefinitely, Ignatius writes: “We’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.’”

That’s true. We’ll never know, and thus today’s defenders of the war end up basing their defense on what are essentially gauzy speculations. Not so, Ignatius. He writes: “But the abiding truth is that America shouldn’t have rolled the dice this way on a war of choice.” Further, he now calls President George W. Bush’s war decision “one of the biggest strategic errors in modern American history.”

Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia goes further. Speaking at a TNI luncheon the other week, he flatly declared the war to have been the single greatest strategic blunder in American history. He can make such a statement without apology because he opposed the war before it began. Writing in The Washington Post some seven months before the first bombs fell, he asked, “Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? And would such a war and its aftermath actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism?” He added that nations such as China could only view the prospect of an American military consumed by turmoil in the Middle East as a “glorious windfall.”

Ignatius, Webb and many other tenth-anniversary war critics base their judgments on the outcome of Bush’s war decision, not on speculations of what the outcome might have been. Consider: Before the war, America was flush with cash. It had Iraq’s Saddam Hussein at bay, a brutal but broken dictator who could be—and was—rather easily contained in his own space. And yet, even in his reduced state, Saddam posed an important counterweight to the ambitions of neighboring Iran, thus helping maintain a valuable balance of power in the region. Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq, as the secular thug Saddam had no intention of allowing any such threat to undermine his rule. True, he maintained Sunni dominance over the majority Shia, but this had been the political reality in Iraq for centuries—under the Ottomans, the British, the British-installed kings and the succeeding dictators. And while this wasn’t pluralism, it did breed stability.

Now America is broke, in part because of the estimated $2.2 trillion invested in Iraq. Iran, unchecked by Iraqi power, is on the prowl in the region as never before. Al Qaeda is pursuing openings there that didn’t exist during the Saddam days. Sectarian strife is rampant and on the rise. The entire region has been destabilized, in part because of the Iraqi invasion, and Islamic fundamentalism is more thoroughly entrenched in the region than ever. China, as Webb and others predicted, has exploited America’s Middle East preoccupation to flex its muscles in Asia. And all this represents the strategic cost, leaving aside the 190,000 people killed by the war, including 4,488 U.S. service members, 3,400 U.S. contractors, and 134,000 Iraqi civilians.

Now let’s look more closely at the arguments of the war’s defenders. A good place to start is The Wall Street Journal’s March 20 editorial, “Iraq in Retrospect.” The arguments include the following:

First, it wasn’t just the president and his intelligence officials who thought erroneously that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, the initial top selling point for the war. Just about everyone else thought so, too, and Bush’s executive culpability is leavened by that fact. And when Bush took office, Iraq represented “a simmering and endless crisis for the U.S.—one that Saddam appeared to be winning.” Hence, the war was justified even absent WMD in Iraq.

But the problem was in the execution: U.S. officials never anticipated the insurgency that would follow the invasion. They extended Paul Bremer’s regency over too long a period. They didn’t go after Syria and Iran, which were supporting the insurgency in various ways, and hence lacked the stomach for wider military action in the region. They accepted a mediocre military leadership in country for too long. They “offered shifting rationales for the war.”

Still, according to this view, Saddam was deposed and killed. Iraq was neutered as a regional power. A sociopath was replaced by a leader with a mere “authoritarian streak.” Bush created a great opportunity for an ongoing U.S. military presence in the country, but then President Obama botched the opportunity by failing to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Finally: “Don’t be surprised if someday Iraq is remembered as the war George Bush won and the peace Barack Obama lost.”

Thus do we see the stark distinction between the Ignatius/Webb view and the WSJ view. The former looks at the outcome and the real-world price and concludes the outcome wasn’t worth the price. The latter looks at the price and concocts a fanciful outcome that could have happened—and would have justified the price had it actually materialized.

The problem with the latter view is that neither history nor politics turns on might-have-beens. Napoleon might have won at Waterloo, in which case he would be considered one of the greatest figures in the history of the world. Lee might have won at Gettysburg, in which case the country would have split in two for at least an extended period of time. Nixon might have defeated Kennedy for the White House in 1960, in which case his presidency might never have been destroyed by scandal. Gore might have defeated George W. Bush in 2000, in which case there probably wouldn’t have been a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But we don’t know, and history will never know. In fact, history doesn’t care. Neither did U.S. voters care when they judged the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008 in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. What they knew was that Bush invaded Iraq, and it turned into a disaster. That’s all they needed to know.

Now, ten years later, as we look at the retrospective commentary on the war, it’s instructive to search for the rhetorical and logical contortions. The Wall Street Journal editorial and Charles Krauthammer’s comments on Fox News and Weekly Standard justifications are filled with them. No so, the straightforward observations of David Ignatius and Jim Webb, who look upon the world as it actually is.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.