Was the War Worth It?
1. On the question of whether, in Andrew’s words, "the entire adventure has been worth it": my view is, and has been for some time, it depends on what emerges in Iraq — and right now we simply cannot tell. What we do know is that a situation that looked grave
and potentially catastrophic two years ago looks much better now. And what seemed impossible to some and improbably to many in December 2006 — a decent, and even successful, outcome in Iraq — is now not only possible but within our grasp.
If we succeed in Iraq, then the war will have arguably been worthwhile, despite the costs, despite the fact that the fundamental casus belli (WMD stockpiles) was wrong, and despite the enormous failures in the Phase IV planning of the war (which I acknowledge in my piece and have written about before). That doesn’t excuse the mistakes; it only means that a successful outcome in Iraq could overcome them. Ambassador Crocker has put it as well as anyone: how we leave Iraq will matter more than how we entered Iraq. And given where things stand now, with success that is indisputable, if still fragile, it strikes me that the point I made is not only defensible but true: "It is far from clear that Iraq will be judged a strategic blunder at all, let alone [as Obama asserted in his Times op-ed] the ‘greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy.’"
2. According to Andrew
Whether removing Saddam was worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands, displacement of millions, empowerment of Iran, ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, $1 trillion, $145 a barrel oil, up to 5,000 coalition deaths, and the resurgence of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is another matter.
To reiterate: the acid test is what eventually happens in Iraq, the region, and to al Qaeda and the jihadist movement based on events in Iraq. That remains an open question. We can certainly all stipulate that there has been a much higher human cost to the war than any of us wish. Yet we should also acknowledge that Saddam was a genocidal dictator and Iraqis suffered horrible cruelties under him. That is why on August 3, 2002, Andrew wrote that the Iraq war "is about protecting America and the West, as well as liberating the Iraqi people from one of the most evil tyrants in history".
Andrew focused on the savagery of Saddam a good deal more prior to the war than he has since he turned against it. And if the trajectory of events in Iraq continues, there will be little doubt, I think, that the Iraqi people will be better off with Saddam’s regime decapitated, Saddam and his two sons dead and gone, and a freely elected government in power.
As for the empowerment of Iran: we shall see if, assuming Iraq becomes a functioning democracy and an ally of America, Iran is ultimately empowered. Several years ago it was, arguably, but its influence appears to be waning as Iraq grows stronger and more self-confident. As the scholar Vali Nasr wrote last month:
For the first time since 2003, Iran has stumbled badly in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to confront Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City last month caught Tehran off guard. The Mahdi Army lost more than face: It surrendered large caches of arms, and many of its leaders fled or were killed or captured. Crucially, the militias lost strategic terrain – Basra and its chokehold on the causeway between Kuwait and Baghdad and Iraq’s oil exports; Sadr City and the threat posted to Baghdad security. Visiting Basra this month, I saw city walls covered with pro-Maliki graffiti. Commerce is returning to the city center. Trouble spots remain in both places . . . but the Mahdi Army’s unchallenged hold has ended . . . It is a frequent refrain in Washington that the United States needs leverage before it can talk to Iran. In Iraq, Washington is getting leverage. America has the advantage while Iran is on its heels.
On the matter of $145 a barrel oil prices: it’s not clear to me that the responsibility for this can be laid at the feet of the Iraq war. The main reason that oil prices have skyrocketed is because of the huge increase in demand, which is being driven primarily by China and India, has far outpaced supply. The Iraq war hasn’t caused a decrease in supply. And if Iraq continues to stabilize, that should help oil prices.
3. Andrew writes
So then the next argument: "a defeat of historic proportions for al Qaeda." We can hope. But it remains a fact that the only reason al Qaeda needed to be defeated on such a scale in Iraq is because the US created the perfect conditions for its flourishing: anarchy, social disintegration, and sectarian clashes. To have cleaned up the mess we made is not some kind of world-historical step forward. It’s treading water. And it must also be noted that in many ways, al Qaeda defeated itself by its extreme tactics. The same could be said for al Qaeda in Jordan, for example. Democracy in Iraq? Well, it is a fragile achievement so far, but it would be very premature to believe it’s stable or long-lasting or irreversible.
Let’s unpack some of these arguments.
It doesn’t appear as if Sullivan is taking issue with my claim that, "It is now plausible to argue that the Iraq war will lead to a defeat of historic proportions for al Qaeda." He points out, though, that "in many ways, al Qaeda defeated itself by its extreme tactics."
I’ve made the point before that the brutality of al Qaeda is what gave rise to the Anbar Awakening and the massive Sunni uprising against al Qaeda. But it overstates the case, I think, to say that al Qaeda "defeated itself by its extreme tactics." This significantly underplays the role that the Petraeus-led counterinsurgency played in assisting the uprising against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in Iraq was, after all, brutal from the outset, and for a time it was winning. It was a change in counterinsurgency doctrine and a surge in the number of American combat troops that helped take Iraqi revulsion toward al Qaeda and turn it into a military route against al Qaeda.
As for Andrew’s "fact" that "the only reason al Qaeda needed to be defeated on such a scale in Iraq is because the US created the perfect conditions for its flourishing": Sullivan’s premise is that the Iraq war is what allowed al Qaeda to flourish. But this view is simplistic. Al Qaeda was growing in popularity in the Arab and Muslim world before the Iraq war began. In fact, bin Laden and the tactics of jihadists were more popular in the Arab world prior to the Iraq war. According to a July 24, 2007 report from the Pew Global Attitude Project:
The survey finds large and growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere rejecting Islamic extremism. The percentage of Muslims saying that suicide bombing is justified in the defense of Islam has declined dramatically over the past five years in five of eight countries where trends are available [and declined overall in seven of the eight countries where trend data are available]. In Lebanon, for example, just 34% of Muslims say suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified; in 2002, 74% expressed this view.
The Pew reports also states:
The marked decline in the acceptance of suicide bombing is one of several findings that suggest a possible broader rejection of extremist tactics among many in the Muslim world. In many of the countries where support for suicide attacks has fallen there also have been large drops in support for Osama bin Laden.
It is a common myth, then, that al Qaeda was a spent force within the Arab and Islamic world prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom and that the U.S. "created," via the Iraq war, the conditions that allowed al Qaeda to "flourish." What seems to have occurred is that al Qaeda was growing as a force for years prior to 9/11 and gained in popularity within the Arab and Islamic world in its immediate aftermath, though al Qaeda clearly was set back by the early success of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Iraq war helped strengthen al Qaeda for a time, when jihadists were doing well and we were doing poorly. But since roughly the last half of 2007 and through all of 2008, AQI has been absorbing punishing blows and it now desperate. According to the Washington Post, which interviewed CIA Director Michael Hayden in late May
Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world… While cautioning that al-Qaeda remains a serious threat, Hayden said Osama bin Laden is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely forfeited his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit adherents.
We also know from bin Laden’s own words that what made jihadism both confident and increasingly popular within the Islamic world prior to the attacks on September 11 was the impression that the West in general, and America in particular, were weak, soft, and too irresolute to prevail against militant Islam. In 1998, for example, bin Laden said this:
We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American solider who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia … [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the America soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, they ran in defeat and America forgot about all the hoopla and media propaganda after leaving the Gulf War. After a few blows, they forgot about this title [leaders of a new world order] and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.
American irresolution emboldened jihadists, which is why if we prevail in Iraq after having sustained a very high cost in blood and treasure, it will be an achievement of enormous consequence — a victory of American will and purpose as well as a key military victory.
On democracy in Iraq, Andrew writes, "Well, it is a fragile achievement so far, but it would be very premature to believe it’s stable or long-lasting or irreversible." I agree and, in fact, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said the achievements in Iraq, including the democratic achievements in Iraq, are fragile and reversible. That is precisely why some of us have argued repeatedly that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could be disastrous; if the gains in
Iraq were "irreversible," there would be no need for a single American to remain in Iraq. So I think Andrew was setting up a strawman here. What I wrote — "Iraq is also, right now, the only authentic democracy in the Arab world" — is quite true. We have a deep interest in doing all we can to see to it that Iraq stays free and, in the future, that liberty and the institutions that make liberty possible spread to other Arab lands. Those goals are ones that Andrew, once upon a time, strongly supported.
4. The main points of my post on Obama and Iraq are ones Andrew never really addresses; namely, that (a) Senator Obama was profoundly wrong in his opposition to the surge and his predictions of what would come to pass; (b) if Obama’s plan had been implemented, America would have almost unquestionably suffered a terrible defeat in Iraq by now (not to mention mass death and probably genocide in Iraq); and (c) Obama has been intellectually dishonest in his refusal to acknowledge, until only recently (and grudgingly), progress in Iraq. In that sense, Obama has been in a state of denial and the embodiment of the kind of rigid ideologue of which he claims to be the antithesis. Those points are ones I think Andrew, at his best and at his most intellectually honest, would concede.