The Iraq War (2003)

It’s too soon to understand the full geopolitical implications of the Iraq War – the last US troops only exited at the end of 2011. However, it’s not to soon to issue a corrective to the prevailing narrative about the conflict. That narrative goes something like this: Congress and the public were misled about the justifications for the war, without which the war wouldn’t have happened. Sure, we quickly defeated the Iraqis, but so what? We’d already beaten them once. More important, we “lost the peace.” The Bush Administration had no plan to govern the country after the ouster of Saddam, and the pathetic efforts of Paul Brenner encouraged a vast insurgency, led in part by Saddam’s former military commanders. The result was a disaster of momentous proportions whose consequences continue to plague us today.

There is so much wrong with that narrative that it would take me another nine-part series of posts even to begin to parse it. But don’t worry, there’s a simpler way to reveal its defects – we’ll engage in a modest thought experiment. Suppose you were a modern-day Rip Van Winkle who’d nodded off just as US troops were gearing up for the 2003 invasion and had awakened in, say, late March of 2016. You would have looked around Iraq, looked around the Middle East, and said to yourself, “Well, that went swimmingly! Sorry I missed it!”

What is the evidence for such a happy assessment? It’s straightforward:

* Exhibit A is the Iraqi democracy. Iraq, let’s not forget, isn’t even a real country, having been created out of the countryside around Mesopotamia by Mr. Sykes and M. Picot after World War I. It has no history or experience of the institutions normally thought to be essential to democratic government. It is riven by the Sunni-Shia hatred that pervades the Middle East, and it is infected with radical Islamics who are happy to sow destruction wherever possible. And yet, Iraq is a democratic republic, with 78% of the population having voted for the Constitution. It might not be a pretty democracy, but where do we ever see such a thing? (Have you looked at the US Congress recently? Paid any attention to the Presidential campaign?) All the main factions in Iraq are represented in the legislature, as well as in the prime minister’s cabinet. And the Iraqi democracy has proved resilient. When the first post-war prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, veered strongly towards Shia-entric rule, he was replaced in an orderly fashion by the more moderate Haider Al-Abadi. A few years ago powerful clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr thought nothing of sending armed troops into battle to increase their power. Today, al-Sadr is heading a peaceful protest not against the hated Sunnis nor to gain control of rival territory, but to protest corruption and demand greater accountability and reforms. It’s downright amazing.

* Exhibit B is the Arab Spring. On December 17, 2010 a Tunisian street vender named Tarek Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his treatment at the hands of police, and soon all of the Middle East had exploded. Millions of people took to the streets demanding democracy, self-determination, human dignity. Across the region, long-ruling tyrants fell like duckpins. The West watched in astonishment, and to this day experts on the Middle East are clueless about how such a thing could have happened. But there’s no mystery about it. Everyone in the Middle East had watched in amazement as Saddam Hussein, who had ruled Iraq with an iron fist for 24 years, was routed from office, hunted down and hanged. They gaped at their TV screens as his statue was toppled in downtown Baghdad. They stared in dumbfounded admiration as the Iraqis adopted a constitution and elected a parliament. Almost as one, the people of the Middle East cried out, “If them, why not us?” All it took was a spark, and Tarek Bouazizi, quite literally, supplied that spark. Without the example of Iraq, the Arab Spring would be incomprehensible.

* Exhibit C is the Iran nuclear accord. If Saddam had still been in power he would have continued his frantic efforts to obtain “weapons of mass destruction” and Iran would have been insane to even consider compromising its own nuclear program. Those who support the accord and those who oppose nuclear proliferation should be down on their knees thanking whatever god they pray to for the Iraq War.

* Exhibit D is ISIS. I know, I know, you are thinking that ISIS is Exhibit A against the Iraq War. But think about it this way. We’re stuck with radical Islam and will be for decades. Given that, would we prefer the al-Qaeda version, lurking securely in impenetrable mountains and then suddenly striking out to topple skyscrapers? Or would we prefer radical Islamists who, because they are intent on establishing a global caliphate, are stupid enough to field conventional armies where they can, and most certainly will, be destroyed on the battlefield?(1)

Okay, so maybe Mr. Van Winkle is looking out at the Middle East through glasses with rosy lenses. Or maybe he’s been imbibing his Pappy Van Winkle for breakfast.(2) As I said, it’s too soon to fully understand the implications of the war. But at least Van Winkle’s assessment has the advantage of being in accordance with the facts on the ground. As the years and decades role by, I predict that the rosy assessment will prevail, and that everyone who has been in the defeatist, I-hate-George-Bush-so-the-war-must-have-been-a-mistake camp, will quietly forget they were there.

*  *  *

In short, citizens of a hyperpower can continue to assess wars in a conventional way if they wish – that works if all we care about is piling up smashing victories against out-matched opponents. But if we actually care about the future world our children are going to live in, we need to start thinking in war-of-detainder terms.

(1) At this writing no fewer than 30 nations (many of which don’t otherwise speak to each other) are already allied against ISIS, which has already lost 40% of its territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria. When Mosul and Palmyra fall to Iraqi and Syrian forces it will be the beginning of the end for ISIS.

2) I personally have a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle secreted somewhere in my house, which I bring out only for special occasions. I.e., when no one is around to enjoy it but me.

Next up: Why Are We So Afraid of Democracy?

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