Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 2, 2004
WAR: The Goalposts
We can't well judge where we stand on victory in Iraq - and how much more needs to be done - without stepping back and reviewing what our objectives there were in the first place. I'm not looking so much to answer all these questions in this one entry as to frame the issues:
1. Removing the Regime: As I've explained repeatedly before (see here, for example) and will no doubt return to again soon, the first and primary reason for the Iraq war was the nature of the regime itself - implacably hostile to the United States, planted at the center of the region that has been the epicenter for terrorism against the United States and its allies, immune to outside persuasion or pressure, safe from any internal revolt, and unpredictable in its actions. The regime's record on numerous issues supported the conclusion that it could neither be changed nor safely ignored. Recall just one example, one of the most critical facts about Saddam Hussein's regime: after September 11, when nearly all of the world's worst dictators - Castro, Khaddafi, even Arafat - were lining up to give lip service to denouncing the attacks, Saddam's state-run media was trumpeting them with front-page celebrations. The Ba'athist regime put up murals cheering the attacks. All of which underlined why the United States Congress had passed, and President Clinton signed into law, legislation making "regime change" in Iraq the formal policy of the United States. Removing the regime would also take care of its appalling human rights record.
The objective of removing the regime was, of course, accomplished by mid-April 2003, which is what anyone who was paying attention understood to be the "Mission Accomplished" announced by President Bush a few weeks later. The final nails in the coffin were the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein and the December 2003 capture of Saddam himself. While it's true that some ex-Ba'athists are starting to resurface in the new Iraq, notably in the Fallujah Brigade tasked with pacifying Fallujah (and now the head of the new provisional government), that's as unremarkable as the presence of ex-Communists (like Yeltsin and Putin) in post-Soviet Russia, given the lack of alternatives to being in the Ba'ath party while Saddam ruled the country. There's nothing to fear in terms of the regime rising again in anything resembling its prior form, especially given how much of that form was dictated by the personality of Saddam Hussein himself.
2. Removal of the WMD Threat - While the human element was Iraq's chief threat, the regime's persistent pursuit of weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological, nuclear - was, famously, the subject of international debate for years before the war dating back to Israel's bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. On the issue of WMD programs, we can feel pretty good about what we've accomplished - we know that the regime was continuing to, at a minimum, 'keep its powder dry' in terms of maintaining the know-how and capability to ramp up production of chemical and biological weapons, which are cheaper, quicker and easier to produce and transport than nuclear weapons; that that capability was concealed from weapons inspectors; and that that capability is now dissipated.
Actual weapons - including the large stockpiles previously identified by the UN (and cited by President Bush) but not accounted for - are another matter. If we ever get comfortable that there really were no such stockpiles by the time of the war, of course, that would be good news; a propaganda victory for war opponents, but good news nonetheless. On the other hand, if there's one thing that's made me genuinely nervous about the aftermath of the war (or perhaps the interminable 14-month "rush to war"), it's the possibility that WMD materiel made its way to Syria or into the hands of rogue individuals or groups, including Al Qaeda or other international terror groups. Thus, it remains premature to declare victory on this front, and we may never really get to the bottom of the question.
3. Eliminate Iraq as a Terrorist Safe Haven: Regardless of the continuing debate over the extent of Saddam's active operational and financial assistance to various terror groups, the incontestible fact remains that Iraq before March 2003 was (as Iran and Syria remain) a black hole on the map into which terrorists of all kinds - Zarqawi, Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, Ansar Al-Islam, possibly some of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers - could disappear or encamp without fear of being apprehended or reliably traced. For the moment, that aspect has been greatly diminished - it's true that we haven't found Zarqawi, but then fugitives in the US have been known to evade capture for years as well, and there have been many, many foreign terrorists captured or killed by US forces there. There's at least been very significant progress in reducing the freedom of terrorists to move into Iraq as a safe haven. And, of course, Saddam is no longer pumping cash into the suicide-bombing operations in Israel, which is good.
4. Prevent the Re-Emergence of a Hostile Regime: Obviously, this is the big-ticket endgame right now, and one that might ultimately require us to play power politics, since neither the Shiites, the Sunnis nor the Kurds can create a dangerous rogue regime in Iraq if the other two groups retain some base of power. The major danger would be an Islamist theocracy controlled by Iran under someone like al-Sadr (who's pretty well discredited and weakened at the moment, although the careers of the likes of Khomeini and Saddam suggest that a guy like this is a continuing danger to bounce back until he's actually dead or in permanent US custody).
5. Prevent the Descent of Iraq into a Failed State: The opposite pole, and the first of the objectives that represents an objective of the reconstruction rather than the war (although Christopher Hitchens, among others, has argued that Iraq was headed this way anyway) is preventing anarchy - if Iraq winds up looking like Somalia, it will resume its status as a place for transnational terror groups to congregate. Again, the jury's still out, but the growth of local institutions in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south hopefully could create a fallback position where if post-occupation Iraq started to crumble, there would be hope of salvaging parts of the country from anarchy.
6. Building a Role Model: Most of the objectives of the Iraq war were negative - get Saddam out of power, stop the spread of weapons and terror groups, etc. The positive goal - building democracy in Iraq - has attracted mountains of scorn, but when you consider that we had little choice but to try to rebuild the place anyway once we'd removed the existing regime, why wouldn't we want to use all the persuasive powers at our command to try to provide a positive example to the rest of the region? Needless to say, this aspect of President Bush's "forward strategy of freedom" has a ways to go, although there's no reason to suspect that there won't be elections by January - the more troubling question is what comes after that. My own bottom line: regardless of the shape it takes, if the resulting institutions provide accountable government that the Iraqi people are happy with, that alone will put pressure on the neighbors to shape up. Considering the number of former tyrannies around the world that have transitioned to functioning or semi-functioning democracies in the last 20 years without any U.S. troops at all, and sometimes in the face of bitter-end internal resistance, faltering economies, and/or inhospitable cultural traditions, I hardly consider this an unrealistic endeavor.
7. Humanitarian Reconstruction: Rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals, etc. Keeping the lights on. By all accounts, this is going well. In fact, we made significant progress just by putting and end to the failed sanctions regime, which gave the "containment" policy a brutal cost in human life.
8. Prevent Iraqi-on-Iraqi Violence: At the end of the day, this is Iraq's problem, not ours, although we obviously need to keep violence from overwhelming the other mission objectives. The US media has tended to elevated this to Job One in Iraq, thus missing the entire point of the exercise.
(I'm ignoring "prevent violence against US troops," since that's not so much an end goal as something we're trying to do while working towards our goals; in military terms, force protection is an ongoing priority but not a mission objective - if every other job on the list was done, we could keep the troops safe just by bringing them home. The importance and difficulty of protecting our forces has, of course, been a critical concern through all of this.).
9. "Flypaper": The notion that our troops would serve as "flypaper" - attracting jihadist fanatics to Iraq to kill them rather than have to hunt them down elsewhere - always struck me more as a sliver lining to the cloud of the insurgency rather than a positive goal. It's not that we actually want people attacking our soldiers. But if they are going to pour into Iraq, killing a lot of them is a laudable goal that will advance our ultimate war aims, and the casualty figures from the front suggest that we are indeed doing this at a fairly high volume.
10. Get the Wells Pumping: Nobody seriously argued that oil should have been a valid reason for war - we could have increased Iraq's production by lifting UN sanctions - but given oil's importance to the Iraqi, world and US economies, getting the wells pumping at full tilt was obviously an important thing to do. From what I've read, that's going fine, although it may be some time before Iraq can really tap into its full potential as an oil producer.
11. Reorganize US Base Structure: Basing US troops in Saudi Arabia, of course, was not only expensive and inefficient (like the Germans, the Saudis could be picky about where they would let us go), but also an irritant cited by bin Laden as a grounds for jihad. We seem to be headed towards the first leg of this objective, getting our bases out of Saudi Arabia, and for now we have temporary bases in Iraq from which to stage more operations against the likes of Syria and Iran. But it's an open question whether the new Iraqi government will agree to long-term basing rights.
I've probably forgotten something, and I'm also leaving off some of the more intangible objectives, like demonstrating US resolve, sending a message to other dictators, improving the future credibility of UN resolutions, repaying the Kurds and Shiites for abandoning them in the past, etc. I'm also ignoring the end of the oil-for-food boondoggle, since that wasn't and couldn't have been fully appreciated as a war aim before the war.