The verdict of history is sometimes delayed but it cannot be forestalled forever. Though it is still a cardinal tenet of American liberalism that the invasion of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster, the truth about the sincerity of its planners as well as the long-term benefits of the war there cannot be ignored forever. It is in that light that Jackson Diehl’s column in today’s Washington Post must be viewed.
Diehl deserves credit for opening up a conversation about Iraq that puts the achievements as well as the shortcomings of the American effort in perspective. But, as he rightly points out, the context for evaluating the results are not the unrealistic expectations many held for that nation after the toppling of Saddam but rather a comparison to what is going in the rest of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. While many in the West are blithely predicting the fall of the Assad clan in Syria, the truth is the best possible scenario for that country’s future would be what is currently happening in Iraq. But the creation of a working, albeit flawed democracy in Iraq would have been impossible with a U.S. military intervention.
Without the American invasion, Saddam would have survived just as the Assad regime has persisted. Though critics of the war cite the grievous casualties the conflict there produced, Saddam murdered countless thousands of his own people while he ruled. His reaction to the Arab Spring would have made Bashar al-Assad look like a humanitarian.
As Diehl writes:
The pain and cost of that war are some of the reasons the United States and its allies have sworn off intervention in Syria and why the Obama administration made a half-hearted effort in Libya.
Iraq, however, looks a lot like what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be. Its vicious dictator and his family are gone, as is the rule by a sectarian minority that required perpetual repression. The quasi-civil war that raged five years ago is dormant, and Iraq’s multiple sects manage their differences through democratic votes and sometimes excruciating but workable negotiations. Though spectacular attacks still win headlines, fewer people have died violently this year in Iraq than in Mexico — or Syria.
Just as significantly, Iraq remains an ally of the United States, an enemy of al-Qaeda and a force for relative good in the Middle East. … All of this happened because the United States invaded the country.
The Arab Spring, in short, is making the invasion of Iraq look more worthy — and necessary — than it did a year ago. Before another year has passed, Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.
There is little doubt once the partisan bickering that characterized the debate over Iraq recedes into memory, the wisdom of Diehl’s conclusion will be generally accepted. While the pain the war in Iraq caused was probably more than most Americans were willing to pay, those sacrifices were not in vain. As the disasters the Arab Spring has brought in its wake unfold, understanding of the truth of his conclusion will only grow.