Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Try to Be Clear, Andrew

Andrew Sullivan recently ran a letter by an anonymous reader asking: “Is Max Boot completely loony?” Funny, I had the same question about Andrew after reading his response to my post on whether we should be concerned about Prime Minister Maliki’s vague demands for a timetable for an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Andrew takes particular objection to my assertion that “U.S. forces will need to remain in Iraq for years to nurture this embattled democracy–and not so incidentally to protect our own interests in the region.” He writes:

Not so incidentally? The Iraq war was not sold on the basis of protecting US interests in the region. It was sold on protecting us from a massively over-stated threat, and then to allow for a post-Saddam democracy of sorts. If the Iraqis ask us to leave, we have no business staying. And posts like Boot’s today can only reinforce suspicions that the real motive for invading Iraq was rather different – not incidentally – from that given at the time.

I don’t understand what Andrew is saying, and that’s not just a figure of speech. I really don’t get it. His second sentence (“The Iraq war was not sold on the basis of protecting US interests in the region”) contradicts the third sentence (“It was sold on protecting us from a massively over-stated threat, and then to allow for a post-Saddam democracy of sorts”). Leave aside the false implication that the creation of an Iraqi democracy was an afterthought–a commonly heard assertion from critics of the war, which ignores President Bush’s numerous references in prewar speeches about his desire to create an Iraqi democracy. The main reason for the invasion, of course, was the conclusion of the CIA and every other intelligence agency in the world that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of United Nations sanctions. The threat, as we later found out, was over-stated, but, based on the best intelligence we had, it was natural that most Americans (including you, Andrew) concluded that Saddam’s regime did pose a threat to “US interests in the region.” The war was “sold” precisely on the basis that we would eradicate this threat.

In his last sentence Andrew hints that there was some deep, dark motive for invading Iraq that wasn’t stated at the time. Again, I literally have no idea what he is talking about. For a possible clue as to his meaning, I have to turn to a previous post of Andrew’s in which he also attacks me. He writes that he and other anti-war critics

just want a sane response as to what “winning” means – and preferably in line with the war-aims of 2003. If it means disarming and deposing and executing Saddam, we have won. But if it means a permanent occupation of Iraq until no possible threat from there could ever emerge, we will be there for ever. That, we now discover, was the goal. Quite why we do not fully know. It cannot be an end to terror: that comes from everywhere, democracies and autocracies alike. We are left with oil, a misguided belief that the West’s occupation of the Middle East will protect Israel, and, well, just because we can. None of these arguments is persuasive to me, when you factor in the enormous costs, drain on the military and absurdism of Iraqi political culture.

This is a little more revealing of Andrew’s thinking, although it’s so muddled that the more of it I see, the more confused I get. Let’s see if we can unravel this a bit.

He claims that if the goal was “disarming and deposing and executing Saddam, we have won.” That’s true. But it would be a very hollow victory indeed if, having deposed Saddam, we left chaos in his wake–chaos that would threaten our interests. That would be like someone in 1945 saying, “The goal of the war was to disarm and depose and kill Hitler, so we have won. Why keep troops in Germany?” The answer, of course, is that ending the previous regime is only part of the goal. If we remain satisfied with that narrow objective we risk repeating the mistake of 1919 when, having deposed Kaiser Wilhem II, the Allied powers failed to build a durable, democratic regime in Germany.

Sorry, Andrew; I know you don’t like analogies between Iraq and Germany, since, as you so astutely point out, there are differences between them. If you prefer, I could offer an analogy to our intervention in Haiti in 1994 when we put Jean Bertrand Aristide back into power but didn’t stick around long enough to midwife a lasting democracy. The result is that Haiti is no better off than it was before our intervention.

Perhaps you don’t like the Haiti analogy either. If so, perhaps you could provide some convincing evidence that the U.S. can invade a country, topple its regime, leave immediately–and expect a lasting, positive outcome. The best-case scenarios one could cite are probably Granada and Panama. But I would submit that the differences between Granada/Panama and Iraq are even greater than the differences between Iraq and Germany. Granada and Panama, after all, weren’t targets of subversion for hostile neighbors or international terrorist groups.

But back to your inquiry into our reasons for intervention. You write that we could not have gone into Iraq to put “an end to terror: that comes from everywhere, democracies and autocracies alike.” At the risk of another analogy to a period you’d rather not mention, that’s like saying we could not have gone into World War II to end militarism because that could arise from anywhere. True, but we did fight to end two particularly noxious strains of militarism emanating from Japan and Germany. Likewise, by deposing Saddam, we eliminated the well-documented threat he posed to the region. We also eliminated his connections to some terrorist groups. (For details, see this report commissioned by the U.S. Joint Forces Command and released last November.) No one ever claimed–and I mean no one–that deposing Saddam would result in the end of all terrorism.

Having knocked down that straw man, you proceed to list some other possible reasons for our intervention: “We are left with oil, a misguided belief that the West’s occupation of the Middle East will protect Israel, and, well, just because we can.”

I’ve already pointed out there is nothing illegitimate about protecting the flow of oil when the entire global economy depends on that precious commodity. As for protecting Israel, again there is nothing wrong with that, since Israel is our ally. But the protection of Israel is, at most, a very peripheral impact from our intervention in Iraq. Of more immediate concern is that we protect other allies much closer to Iraq, namely the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey. Even more important, we need to protect ourselves: having Iraq turn into a setting for civil war, genocide, and international terrorism is hardly in our best interests.

I won’t bother responding to your final, juvenile taunt about “just because we can.” Instead, I will end on a note of concurrence. “If the Iraqis ask us to leave, we have no business staying,” you write. I agree. My point was that the Iraqis aren’t asking us to leave because, unlike you and other anti-war voices in the United States, they realize that the consequences of a an overly hasty American pullout would be catastrophic.

As for how will we know we’ve succeeded? That’s a matter of judgment but our objectives are fairly clear. Simply look at President Bush’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, released in 2005. It lists short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The long-term objective include an Iraq that “is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.” Thanks to the surge, which you opposed, we’re well on our way to achieving that goal, and as we do we can safely reduce troop levels even further. But a precipitous pullout still could undo the gains of the past year.