The tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has occasioned a lot of interesting and anguished appraisals. For those of us who supported the decision to invade, all such occasions present a chance for reflection on what went wrong—and right—and whether our backing for the war effort was misbegotten. Most of those who initially supported the decision to go to war—including our current secretaries of state and defense—long ago disowned their early hawkishness. For my part, I have resisted the urge to “repent,” as critics of the war effort would have it.
I should make clear that, unlike some supporters of the war effort, I would not have backed the invasion if I had known what we now know—that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. There were, to be sure, secondary reasons to act, in particular the desire to implant a democracy in the middle of the Middle East. But, while I am a firm believer in democracy promotion, I don’t believe that its spread justifies exposing our soldiers to danger unless there is an overriding threat to our own security. In the case of Iraq, it was almost universally believed prior to the invasion that such a threat existed: not just the CIA but the Mossad, MI6, and every other allied intelligence agency agreed that Saddam had WMD. Heck, even his own generals believed it—Saddam out-bluffed himself.
That’s why there was so much support in this country for the initial invasion—more support, it is worth recalling, than there was for the Gulf War precipitated by Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. I feel no shame in being part of the 75 percent of Americans who believed at the beginning that this was a war worth waging. I am equally satisfied to have been part of the minority (roughly 40 percent of those surveyed) who continued to support the war even as it was going badly in the years from 2003 to 2007.
While I can understand why so many jumped off the bandwagon when it started to roll into a ditch, I believe this was fundamentally a short-sighted decision designed to assuage the conscience of erstwhile war-supporters at the cost of doing even greater damage to American interests. Just because we made lots of mistakes in the early going in Iraq doesn’t mean we could have simply left while the country was collapsing into civil war. The result would have looked like Syria today, only the U.S. would have been directly responsible for unleashing all that mayhem. That would have been an immoral and costly mistake.
Having started a war, we had an obligation to see it through to a satisfactory conclusion. Just because the war turned out to be a lot harder and bloodier than anyone could have imagined at the outset doesn’t mean we could have simply abandoned it—any more than we could have abandoned the Civil War when the Union armies did not win a quick victory at First Bull Run or abandoned the Second World War after the setbacks of Pearl Harbor and Kasserine Pass.
Of course, you may retort, it is easy for me to say that—I wasn’t one of the soldiers on the frontlines at risk of death and dismemberment. That’s true, although, unlike many war opponents, I did visit Iraq regularly to see conditions for myself. Admittedly I came as a (relatively) coddled visitor—not as a frontline grunt. But at least it did give me a chance to ask soldiers for their own views of the war. And while some wondered what it was all about, the majority of military personnel I spoke to were against immediate withdrawal because they knew the chaos that would result.
The real proof of military attitudes lay in the fact that, although the army had trouble recruiting during the worst years of the war (which also happened to be boom years back home), retention remained strong, especially in frontline combat units exposed to the most risk. U.S. troops are volunteers; they can vote with their feet if they no longer want to serve; and while some were there involuntarily because of “stop-loss” orders, most remained ready to fight, even if they were fighting primarily for their buddies and their unit rather than for some grand conception of Iraqi democracy.
Was their sacrifice worthwhile? From today’s vantage point, unfortunately, the answer looks increasingly to be “no”—but it did not need to turn out that way. The “surge” of 2007-2008 reduced violence by 90 percent and set Iraq on track to become a functional democracy. Alas, President Obama did not show much commitment to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have kept American forces there past 2011. The result is that U.S. influence in Iraq has plummeted while Iranian influence has soared. Left to his own devices, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is acting in increasingly sectarian fashion that is alienating the Sunnis and allowing al-Qaeda in Iraq—virtually defeated by 2009—to spring back to life. In short, we have managed to squander many of the gains that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve during the long, bloody years of war.
But all is not lost yet. Thanks to its oil revenues, Iraq has a robust economy with some of the highest growth rates in the world. Nor is it entirely lost to the West, as Maliki’s willingness to have the CIA train his counter-terrorism forces indicates. There is still a chance, however scant, that Iraq will meet the fondest hopes of invasion supporters who wanted to establish a new democracy. It is just not as big of a chance as it was a couple of years ago.