Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 12, 2004
WAR/POLITICS: The Right War, The Right Place, The Right Time – PART IV
This is the final part of a four-part series on the Iraq War.
Part I looked at why America could not rest after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and why state sponsors of terror, such as Iraq, require our attention. Part II looked at why, in particular, North Korea and Iran should not have taken precedence over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Part III looked at why the decision to go to war in Iraq was necessary and justified. Those questions provide a necessary background to this analysis.
This part looks at what, roughly a year and a half on, America has gained and what it has lost from the Iraq War. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The answer, attempting to look at the war from all angles, is yes.
First, however, it’s useful to take a few steps back and get some perspective what “the war” was and is. The Iraq War, insofar as it originally aimed to achieve the disarmament of Saddam Hussein and force regime change, was a smashing success. Those objectives have long since been accomplished. Post-war reconstruction and counter-insurgency continue, however, and together are far more difficult, challenging and potentially rewarding than even the war itself. Perhaps it’s a semantic point, but the war and the insurgency are two different animals. America and its allies won the war. America, its allies and the new Iraqi government have not yet put down the insurgency.
Overall though, what has the war (if, for shorthand, we define it as both) cost us?
The sacrifices of our troops are nothing short of awe-inspiring and should give us pause. Spend a little time over at this site. It is relatively easy to sit here and advocate or justify war when others are volunteering to fight it. They are our very best men and women. I know some people who have been in Iraq, some who are in Iraq and some who will be going to Iraq. I have the deepest admiration for their service and concern for their safety.
Furthermore, we should never overlook or trivialize the deaths of those on whose behalf our troops are now acting and even those against whom they are fighting. People are being killed in Iraq and it is all too easy to say that our actions have resulted only in the death of terrorists and radicals. When people are dying from our bullets and our bombs, however much we may regret and try to avoid it, we need to always have a damn good answer ready as to why we are fighting. In Iraq, the answer is that, long-term, the temporary suffering from establishing a stable, representative government and removing a tyrannical dictatorship is outweighed by the inevitable suffering which would have resulted from leaving such a brutal and militarily reckless regime in place. The only thing worse than military action would have been inaction.
Also, while I don’t want to get into grisly tallies of body counts from other conflicts, suffice to say, that comparisons between the human toll of the current Iraq conflict and Vietnam are highly lacking in perspective. Approximately 58,000 Americans died during the Vietnam War. We have not even taken 2 % as many casualties in Iraq. It demeans the sacrifices America made during the Vietnam War to equate it with this conflict (yet, it must be said, we have perhaps achieved more of our objectives in less than two years in Iraq than we did in a over a decade in Vietnam). Another perspective: almost three times as many Americans died on September 11, 2001, as have died in over a year and half in Iraq.
Some would also emphasize the financial and diplomatic costs. Neither is a wholly inconsequential consideration. Yet, neither should have prevented decisive action.
By any measure, the Iraq War and post-war reconstruction have been financially costly. As John Kerry and John Edwards point out, the first Gulf War was tremendously cheaper, due to the size of that coalition and the cost-sharing involved. However, the Gulf War – which Kerry voted against – was the exception rather than the rule; the 1991 coalition was the largest in history and the war’s objectives were very narrowly defined. Wars, like foreign aid or humanitarian assistance, tend to be costly.
Yet, national security concerns trump short-term economic considerations. So, too, should humanitarian concern for helping rebuild a country crippled by decades of dictatorship and war. But, if money is your major concern, think strategically. A stable, relatively friendly and oil-producing Iraq should be an economically viable partner. Look at the prosperity enjoyed by previous countries the United States has rebuilt. Look at Western Europe. Look at Germany. Look at Japan. Look at South Korea. Think about what those countries’ prosperity has meant to ours. Iraq is unlikely to ever achieve those economic heights, but, if it can get on its feet, its standing will only improve.
Also, the war, which is very unpopular in many foreign quarters, has clearly taken some diplomatic toll on the U.S. Global popular opinion tends to disapprove of any reminders of American hegemony, no matter how justified the action in question. Our alliance structure survives nonetheless. Still, America’s alliances are important, but they are not as important as doing what’s right, both for our own interests and for those of maintaining global order. Responsibility and occasional unpopularity are the price America pays for its hegemonic status. At the same time, international bodies will never be fully accepted by Americans until they are willing to stand up decisively to tyrants and until serial violators of their resolutions are dealt with resolutely.
Some would say the war was a distraction from the “real war” against al Qaeda. That is indeed the main event, but, as indicated earlier in Part I, the U.S. can’t just go openly barreling into a place like Pakistan just because we are frustrated and impatient for results. Unfortunately, the war against al Qaeda is one which, for the most part, must be fought in the shadows. It is frustrating, but (a) just because we are not hearing about certain activities does not mean they are not taking place, (b) this is the nature of fighting terrorism and (c) it is why it is critically important to hold accountable those supporters of terrorism, like Saddam Hussein, who were flouting the will of America and the world out in the open. (As an aside regarding distractions, I would add that deploying all of the troops we have in Iraq as a “bluff” to allow for the never-ending dance of the weapons inspectors - which some floated as an option - would likely have been equally “distracting” without any of the advantages of removing a vile and menacing dictatorship…for good.)
Finally, some would argue that the war is a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and that it will only provoke more terrorism. This is the “we are giving bin Laden what he wants” argument. I agree that the Iraq War is a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and I agree that short-term it is certainly encouraging terrorism in Iraq. But long-term, which is how we absolutely need to think about all this, the promotion of a stable and representative Iraq would be a body blow to al Qaeda and its ideals. Open and accountable Middle Eastern governments are the best long-term solution to radical Islamic terrorism. More on that in a moment.
Unquestionably, the Iraq War has not been without very real costs. What, then, has it all accomplished?
We should not be unrealistic about the many obstacles to democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds and we should recognize that democracy, in general, is not a panacea, but we should also not be reflexively pessimistic. Iraq need not ever look like America. If it could become a stable, representative, yet still utterly imperfect, democracy like Turkey, the world would be a much better place. Recently, Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim nation, held relatively free democratic elections for the first time. Afghanistan followed soon after. Iraq, with our help, is scheduled to have elections in January. The tide may slowly be turning against autocracy in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. We should do all we can to see that it does.
Only by establishing accountable governments will terrorism slowly recede. Middle East autocracies have for decades been passing off their internal failings by diverting hatred towards the United States and Israel. In so doing, they encourage terrorism against us. While Arab-Israeli peace is one potential solution we should push for, it is not on the near horizon. A move towards democracy and away from repressive strongmen like Saddam is the other solution and it could have much more sweeping ramifications in the long-term.
One small silly anecdote comes to mind. When New York Governor George Pataki visited Iraq he was asked what he thought. He offered a seemingly glib reply that it reminded him of his time as mayor of Peekskill, New York – everyone was complaining, about sewers, power outages, schools, etc… In a democracy, people generally do not spend their days worrying about how to evade the secret police or being encouraged to rain fire down upon a “Great Satan” or planning to strap explosives to themselves to blow up Zionists. They care about things like feeding their family, paying their bills, educating their children and fixing the septic tank.
Democracy was simply never going to take root under the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. Even the most sincere and committed opponents of this war must recognize that. Saddam, in fact, now sits in a jail cell, awaiting trial before an Iraqi tribunal to publicly air his crimes and render the long-overdue justice he so richly deserves.
The Iraq War has had other benefits. Libya, soon after the war, made its most dramatic reversal in its public stance, peacefully agreeing to verifiably dismantle its weapons of mass destruction in return for a slow reemergence into the community of nations. Between Iraq and Libya, the United States and its allies have two very distinct examples to show to Iran, North Korea and other would-be dictators, proliferators, and potential enemies. Used wisely, these contrasting examples can be an invaluable deterrent to war and should encourage resolute engagement with such regimes, on our terms, not just on theirs. (The war should be justified on terms other than just chest-pounding posturing, but there is something to be said for Jonah Goldberg’s two-part pre-war argument - see here and here – analogizing international relations to a prison yard and…well…follow that to its logical conclusion.)
Amid an insurgency which needs to be combated, much good is coming of America’s war in Iraq. See here and here for just two of such examples. Of course, the bloody reality of that insurgency cannot be ignored; some mistakes were clearly made by Rumsfeld and others in the early stages of reconstruction and, I think, the Bush Administration has been overly tentative in its tactics during the past year. Many comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are unwarranted, but I think it is fair to say that counter-insurgency strategy and election-year politics do not make great bedfellows, be it 1964 or 2004.
What does the future hold? I have no idea. Post-war success in Iraq, as defined as a stable, representative Iraqi government we can live with, is by no means assured. The United States and its allies have a huge role to play, but ultimately the future will be written by the Iraqi people. Freedom is theirs for the taking.
Broadly speaking, two sets of foreigners have poured into Iraq. One fought to remove Saddam Hussein from power and has brought security assistance, humanitarian aid and the determination to allow the embattled country to forge a new democratic future. The other is ruthlessly fighting to repel the first group through an indiscriminate campaign of roadside car bombs, ambushes (often aided by pushing children in front of military convoys) and videotaped beheadings, designed at establishing either a repressive, close-minded theocracy or an anarchistic safe haven for terrorists. Iraqis face a stark choice between those two groups. We must do all we can to help them make the right decisions, but, in the end, they will chart their own course.
Once the Iraqi government has established a relatively stable foothold, we should begin to slowly and responsibly withdraw. America need not, and should not, remain there in perpetuity. One thing I can proudly say about this country: I have read countless articles and editorials by proponents of the war - some even far to my right - but I cannot readily remember even one observer seriously suggesting that America should have even the slightest designs on conquering, colonizing or unfairly exploiting Iraq for material gain. I’m sure some such people exist, but they are a distinct and silent minority.
On a personal note, I will add that I was not always supportive of the notion of military confrontation with Iraq. I once held the view that Saddam was contained and barely tolerable and that al Qaeda should be America’s primary focus. I no longer believe the former, still believe the latter, but, above all, have come to believe that the combination of realpolitik and balancing of evils that characterized America’s policy towards the Middle East needed to change. While realism should always be a part of our worldview, American foreign policy is at its best when our ideals are aligned with our interests. The pre-9/11 status quo in the Middle East of authoritarian regimes, anti-American designs and seething misdirected hatred needed to be altered for the better. After deposing the Taliban and removing terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan, no better or more deserving candidate for regime change existed than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, an open state sponsor of terror led by a man who would do anything to hurt the United States.
Here’s hoping we see it through.