Commentary Magazine


Undoing Settled Judgments

A lot of settled judgments about the Iraq war and its radiating effects are in the process of being undone. The first has to do with Iraq itself. In 2006 and 2007, the argument was that Iraq was irredeemably lost. Ethnic divisions were said to be too great, the social disrepair too widespread, the Iraqi government too inept, the Iraqi Security Forces too ill-trained, and the U.S. strategy too flawed. The war was a blunder of historic proportions, it was said, and it was time to leave. The only debate was whether we could minimize the damage of our loss.

Then came the surge, announced in January 2007, and the enormous (if still fragile) progress in the areas of security, politics, and the economy. As Jennifer pointed out in her posting on CONTENTIONS yesterday, Tom Friedman — who in many ways embodies conventional wisdom among the foreign policy establishment — summarized in his column yesterday the gains that have been made and argued that a decent outcome in Iraq is within reach.

So much for settled judgment Number One.

It was then said that the Iraq war was the greatest recruiting mechanism al Qaeda could have hoped for. But then came the Anbar Awakening and a series of military campaigns that have left al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) broken and on the run, deeply unpopular, and as close to defeat as they have been. AQI remains a lethal threat and can rebound; there may still be lots of ebbs and flows as this war unfolds. But there is no question that today al Qaeda has paid a huge price by making Iraq the central battlefield in the war against jihadism. It may have been a strategic mistake of enormous consequence.

We have also seen the Islamic world — both the clerical/intellectual architects of jihadism and ordinary Muslims — dramatically turn against al Qaeda, bin Laden, and suicide bombings.

So much for settled judgment Number Two.

A third intensely-held view among critics of the war is that the real victor in the Iraq war was Iran. Its influence has dramatically increased, it was said, and it now has an unprecedented capacity to impose its will on the Arab world. But today, in a noteworthy op-ed in the Washington Post, the Middle East scholar Vali Nasr writes that Iran, while still having considerable influence in Iraq, is on its heels. According to Nasr

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.

A third settled judgment, then, may be in the process of being undone.

It wasn’t that these arguments were without any merit at the time they were made. After all, for a time things were bleak in Iraq. What stands out, though, is that the commentators, foreign policy analysts, and politicians took particular moments in time and made definitive declarations based on them, to the point that many were already declaring what the Bush Legacy would be when it came to the war against jihadism. But what looked obvious to them two years ago–Bush’s Iraq war was a failure of historic dimensions, with catastrophic, far-reaching effects–looks very different today.

We shouldn’t commit the same error as the President’s critics, which is to render a final judgment on events yet to unfold. But we can say that enormous and encouraging progress has been made and, if it continues, the Iraq war may be seen years from now as a turning point in America’s successful prosecution of the war against jihadism. And if that’s the case, then Bush’s legacy will look a whole lot better than it does to many people right now. That would be a very bad thing for Bush-haters, and a very good thing for America and the cause of liberty.

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