Commentary Magazine


In Syria, an Alternative Iraq

In all the discussion of the Iraq War’s 10th anniversary it seems nearly everyone has missed the most glaringly relevant detail. George W. Bush went to war to avoid in Iraq exactly what we see today in Syria: an uncontrollable mass-casualty conflagration ignited by the collision of Ba’athism, jihadism, and weapons of mass destruction. Things didn’t go as planned, but the idea was laudable and prescient.

In September 2003, explaining the importance of deposing Saddam Hussein, Bush stated: “The deadly combination of outlaw regimes, terror networks, and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be wished away. If such a danger is allowed to fully materialize, all words, all protests, will come too late.” Clearly the notion of a dullard! But speaking of too late, here’s Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird talking to the Globe and Mail a few days ago:

“A big concern is the chemical weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands” amid the chaos as rebels fight to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Baird said in an interview. “We wouldn’t want to see an al-Qaeda affiliate getting a hold of this or Hezbollah get a hold of it.”

No, we wouldn’t. And yet we find ourselves able to do little more than wish it away. The 70,000 dead, the mounting reports of chemical weapons, the latest Assad crime, the newest jihadi faction, the increasing regional instability—it’s all beyond our control, and expected to continue indefinitely. Perhaps Bush was onto something with that unhinged “preemptive” talk. Post-Saddam Iraq is littered with disappointments, but the Ba’athist country we didn’t invade and occupy has become the scene of this decade’s biblical slaughter. And, as Bush predicted, “all words, all protests” kind of feel “too late.”

But having limited options for intervention in Syria makes it safe for pop-culture voices to express outrage over American inaction. The Onion has published a few satirical pieces savaging Obama with headlines like “’Syrians’ Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight” and “Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People.” Yet for all its moral preening about stopping murderous dictators the joke paper only ever treated Iraq with stories like this: “Bush Says He Still Believes Iraq War Was The Fun Thing To Do.”

Doubtless it’s too much to ask the Onion’s one-note wiseguys to identify in Syria a could’ve-been Iraq. But it shouldn’t be so hard for the rest of us to see. 

Barack Obama, unlike the Onion, is consistent. He didn’t think Iraq (before or after Saddam) was much of his business and he’s not likely to do a lot for Syrians if it means missing a spot on a late-night chat show.

In the years since Obama has been in office, deliberate American neglect has allowed Iraq to unravel. This, in combination with the inability to stop the carnage in Syria, is threatening to undo what achievements still stand. “The Americans…left behind remnants of their occupation. Now is the phase of removing them,” Saad Sami al-Obeidi tells the Wall Street Journal today. Obeidi is a Sunni radical who, along with hundreds of thousands of Sunni protestors and dozens of terrorists, hopes to destroy Iraq’s fragile democracy. “The protest movement, now in its fourth month, has drawn inspiration from events in Syria,” according to the Journal’s Sam Dagher.

For the time being, Iraq’s American-made institutions continue to hold some appeal even among disgruntled Sunnis. They “remain divided on whether to reform or abolish the democratic process that put the country’s Shiite majority in power,” writes Dagher. But with an absentee superpower and a spiraling Syria anything could happen. If Iraq follows Syria down the sinkhole, chalk it up to Barack Obama’s bringing the war “to a responsible end,” as promised.

The conservative handwringing on the decade anniversary of the Iraq War has been a little much. Republicans have gone from criticizing Obama’s foreign policy for being too politically pandering to criticizing Bush’s as being insufficiently so. Yet Bush saw years ahead the collision of forces that would threaten global stability for the duration of our lifetimes. He made big, well-documented mistakes in trying to do something about it. No, there were no WMD in Iraq. But the incorrect belief that there was figured into the thinking of those who supported the war and those who opposed it. If chemical weapons are being deployed in Syria now, those who wanted to stay out of Iraq will unfortunately get a clearer understanding of what they were willing to tolerate. Ten years after the Iraq War and two years into the Syrian free-for-all, Bush’s effort looks far more noble than the alternative. 

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