Raymond Odierno, America’s longest-serving general in Iraq, was the subject of an important interview with David Feith in the Wall Street Journal. Pointing out that in 2004-2006 there was an open insurgency against Iraq as a whole, Odierno made a claim that a few years ago would have seemed fanciful: “Sectarian violence is almost zero. … Yes, there’s still some terrorism, but it’s not insurgents anymore.”
As for the surge, Odierno made this underappreciated point: the surge “shows we learned to adapt, to change. We changed our organization, we changed how we were equipped, and we changed how we did our operations—all while in contact [with the enemy]. That’s an incredible feat.” For those who claim that the Iraq war was a victory for Iran, Odierno disputed that assumption. “They might have balanced each other but how they balanced each other … [caused] significant instability in the region,” the general said. He added that 85 percent of Iraqis believe Iran is trying to harm their country. “Everybody I talk to, I mean every political leader, every military leader, every citizen—and if you’re there living and reading their newspapers and what they’re saying—it’s very clear they want to be their own country,” Odierno said. “They don’t want anybody—the United States, Iran, anybody—telling them what to do.”
On the inability of the Iraqis to form a government more than a half-year after the elections, he predicted a governing coalition will emerge by October. And he said the thing he’s been most pleased with is how the Iraqi military has remained neutral throughout.
On the broader meaning and ramifications of the Iraq war, Odierno said: “I think sometimes we don’t realize the importance of Iraq in the Middle East as a whole. A strong, democratic Iraq with a developing economy could really be a game-changer in the Middle East.” He argued that “there’s a real opportunity here that I don’t think the citizens of the United States realize. I really truly believe there’s an opportunity we might never get again.” And he offered an assessment that is forgotten far more than it should be: “The fact that al Qaeda was targeting Iraq to be the center of their caliphate in order to carry forward terrorism around the world: They failed. … Now Iraqis are rejecting al Qaeda. Now we have a very important Middle Eastern country who is rejecting terrorism.”
During the darkest days of the Iraq war, many people settled on a narrative: it was a mistake of historic proportions that could not possibly turn out well. The surge was a “pipe dream.” New facts and changing circumstances could not shake people from their interpretation of events. No matter; reality does not depend on how dogmatists interpret it. And as we gain greater distance from the Iraq war, the good that it did comes into sharper focus.
Whether Iraq turns out to be the “game-changer in the Middle East” that Odierno says is possible remains to be seen. But this is what we know for now: the war was fought for honorable reasons. While serious mistakes were made and the cost has been quite high in several respects, Saddam — the genocidal leader of a criminal, soul-destroying tyranny — was removed from power. Al-Qaeda and militant Islam were dealt massive setbacks. The people of Iraq have been liberated. And a sworn enemy of America and freedom has become an ally and a (fragile) democracy. To be continued. But for now, that’s a pretty impressive outcome. Among many others, we have Ray Odierno to thank for that.