Thoughts on the Iraq war

March 9, 2010

The Iraq war is so laden with domestic American politics that it is impossible to say a single word about it without igniting partisan rage.  Yet Americans fought and died there.  For this reason alone, our current silence on the subject – a mix of timidity and hypocrisy – appears unseemly.  The war needs a story that transcends politics, and makes sense of the sacrifice of our countrymen.

That story must begin with 9/11:  with the feeling of vulnerability, of being the target of a cunning and desperate enemy, that monstrous act left in its wake.  There was no known connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but they were linked in their undying enmity toward Americans, and in our new awareness, born in blood and ashes, of the damage they could inflict.

It’s easy to forget what powerful support the decision to go to war received, both from the American people and in Congress.  This support would have been inconceivable absent the open wounds of 9/11.

I was never among those troubled by the morality of the war effort.  We defeated a tribal mafia which had fattened on the torment and murder of the population, led by a despot whose love of slaughter was appalling even by the standards of the region.  The overthrow of Saddam, on whatever pretext, was morally justified.  His hanging was justice, but did not – and could not – right the balance of his crimes.

We then faced a revolt by religious totalitarians who built their strategy on blowing up innocents.  They claimed to love death and acted accordingly, making mass murderers of teenagers and mentally impaired women.  These groups of zealots actually conquered swaths of Iraq:  it was the bizarre, vicious manner of their rule, rather than any brilliant moves on our part, which led to the Islamists’ defeat during the surge.

To question the prudence, even the sanity, of the war is valid, however.  We went in for one reason:  concern that Saddam would deliver nuclear or chemical weapons into the hands of terrorists.  When no such weapons were found, we were stuck.

The war became a pretext for a vast outpouring of anti-Americanism the world over.  Former allies abandoned us.  Weak and envious nations felt strengthened by their condemnation of us.  Thuggish rulers like the ayatollahs in Iran and Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez grew bolder because of our troubles.

Our enemies waxed righteous.  The reputation of the United States suffered.  And even to an exceptionalist country, reputation matters.

Was it worth it?  I believe our war dead deserve an answer, but I can offer only my own thoughts.

It would be foolish, I think, to impose a judgment now – as many wish to do, and as the strange reluctance to speak on the subject tacitly does.  The story isn’t over.  The ending, to some extent, will be up to us.  A premature judgment, I can’t help but suspect, is a cover for abdication and escapism.

History is continuous, not episodic.  We can’t walk out of the theater, because the play is never over.  If we forget this commonplace, we’ll be reminded, brutally, at some time not of our choosing.

We are entangled in Iraq, like it or not, and must struggle to achieve a judgment that is worthy of the men and women who have fought and bled there at our bequest.  This calls for intelligence and determination, not brute force.  We, the people, will have to demand a higher standard from our leaders.

Former president Bush, in my opinion, cut a sorry figure during most of the war.  He had his secretary of state plead before a scornful UN.  He took a victory lap when victory was uncertain.  He lost control of the war’s story to any number of commissions, media pontificators, and Vietnam era resurrectionists.  He seemed paralyzed by the terror insurgency until his party’s defeat in 2006.

After that electoral rebuke, having become an unpopular, isolated figure, the former president had his finest moment over Iraq.

Recall the fury of the popular backlash against the war and its promoters.  Tony Blair was eased out of office in Britain, as Jose Maria Aznar had been in Spain.  Congress fell to a Democratic Party which ran on a strictly anti-war platform.

With his supporters beaten and silenced, his political rivals demanding a withdrawal, and a committee of wise men proposing milquetoast solutions, former president Bush opted for victory.  By placing General Petraeus front and center, he managed to persuade a  hostile Congress to support the effort.

There followed the “Anbar Awakening”:  the surge.  The result has been as near to victory as we are likely to get in such a fractured nation.

The recent elections in Iraq, hailed as a triumph and a milestone, are the fruits of the surge.  Yet we shouldn’t wax excessively romantic over this episode.  Iraq is divided, tribal, and brutalized by decades of savage despotism.  Democracy may turn the country  into America’s enemy, Iran’s ally.  The Iraqi majority, with a democratically elected government behind it, may choose to settle scores.

These are the outcomes our policies must be smart enough to avoid.

President Obama is in an uncomfortable place with Iraq.  His political fortunes were made by opposing the war.  He voted against the surge and predicted its failure.  At present, victory in Iraq will likely redound to his predecessor’s credit, while any fresh disaster will become his responsibility – his fault.  Hence, I think, the silence.

On the rare occasions he mentions the issue, President Obama blames the Iraq war for our unhappy relations with the Arab world, and promises to “end” the conflict.  This is slippery language.  Even the president of the United States lacks the power to mandate an end to war, if the two sides wish to continue fighting.  I suspect the president means to end the war for Americans:  to withdraw and disengage, and leave the Iraqis to their own troubles.

That would be both unworthy and unwise, but in line with an administration which seems disinterested in, and disillusioned by, the world.

It may seem a contradiction to engage with an antagonist like Iran and disengage from a client like Iraq:  but in both cases our foreign policy is striving for a paralyzing level of mutual indifference.  In this regard, I fear President Obama represents another consequence of the Iraq war.  I fear the president very deeply craves to forget about the world, and to make the world forget about us.

We are now part of the story of Iraq, and can’t erase ourselves from it.  Beyond the bickering of politics, our interests and our dead demand that we impose, to the limits of our wisdom, a theme on the story which does honor to them and to us.

This is now President Obama’s great burden.  It probably goes against his inclinations.  He quite naturally wishes to be free of foreign entanglements – to focus his energies nearer to home.

He will learn he can’t.  Presidents learn their wishes mean nothing against the turmoil and ambition of nations.  JFK endured the Bay of Pigs.  President Bush went on pause for three years with a blatantly inadequate strategy for Iraq.  Both men learned.  We should expect President Obama to do the same.