For going on three years now I’ve been defending the Iraq war. This is a somewhat ironic role to be cast in since, truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Iraq war.
For the most part, I’ve defended the policy against the various objections of whacko on the left, as well as a few whackos on the right.
The objections are generally broader than the Iraq conflict per se. The critics object to the whole strategy of casting this in martial terms. The critics are mostly opposed to the military, opposed to counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
They view the US as the enemy, and the jihadis as victims. They think that jihadis should be treated like American citizens accused of shoplifting, and according the full panoply of civil rights, consistent international law and the Warren Court. Everything should be channeled through the EU and the UN and the World Court.
This mentality must be resisted at every turn. It will either get us all killed or reduced to a state of dhimmitude.
But that is detachable from the Iraq war. I never thought it was necessary to come down strongly on one side or another. For this is one of those ethical dilemmas, so common in life, in which one must make a momentous decision based on insufficient evidence. The law of unintended consequences has jurisdiction over action and inaction alike. You cannot know in advance of the fact if it was the prudent thing to do. You can only know after the fact, at which point it is, of course, too late if you made a miscalculation.
But that’s just part of assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. You have to make do with the best information you had at the time.
I never thought that asking if Bush made the right decision was the right question to ask. For me, the question was whether Bush made a reasonable decision. And I think he did.
Of course, that was then and this is now. Unfortunately, the political climate is so poisonous and polarized and partisan that it’s impossible to have a grown-up discussion with a card-carrying Bush-hater.
Based on the information he had, it was reasonable of Bush to view Iraq as a potential threat to our national security, and to take preemptive measures to neutralize that threat.
It was also not unreasonable, once we were on the ground, having toppled the old regime, to try putting the pieces back together in a political configuration more favorable to our national self-interest.
I always viewed the neocon vision as unduly optimistic and misguided by failing to take into account the power of religion and ethnicity. But if it failed, it failed, not by being irrational, but by being overly rational.
To some extent, Christianity has spoiled us to expect a certain degree of rationality from others. But the deep-seated paranoia and tempermentalism that exists in the Muslim world reminds us that rationality is not a common grace denominator.
One can speculate on all the mistakes we made. I’m not sure what mistakes we made, and whether doing things differently would have made a difference.
For one thing, life is like a game of chess. Once you get into the game and make some moves and lose some pieces, you don’t get a change to replace and reposition and start all over again if you decide you don’t like the way things are going.
And, of course, you’re not free to make any move you please, because you’re moves are constrained by the opposing player’s countermoves.
So often in life we don’t get the luxury of knowing whether there ever was a right way of doing things. We don’t get to undo what we did and try out a number of different problem-solving strategies.
Life is not a test-drive. For better or worse, you learn as you go.
I’d also add that the insurgency has been so intense and so sustained that it’s hard to see what we could have done differently that would have made a big difference.
The basic problem is and has always been that there is no popular counterinsurgency to check the insurgency.
If we fail in Iraq, it isn’t because our troops failed us. Our troops have performed magnificently, and you have only to compare their performance with the underperformance of the locals to see the weak link at that end.
Likewise, you have only to compare the courageous idealism of our troops with the whiny pampered liberals to see, once again, the weak link at our end.
I basically gave up on the Iraq war back in March 31, of 2004 when four of our civilian contractors were murdered by a cheering mob.
This wasn’t just a band of jihadis or former Republican guards. The townsfolk were cheering them on as well.
At that point I concluded that Iraq wasn’t worth it, the Iraqis weren’t worth it, that we were viewed as the enemy by the very people we were there to help.
That, admittedly, was a snap judgment, but subsequent events have done nothing to revise my estimate. The situation has never stabilized.
That is because we had a divided mission. Our troops have had to fight with one arm tied behind their back because we wanted to treat the Iraqis as our friends instead of our enemies, and so we didn’t resort to the ruthless tactics employed in WWII.
We have the military might to crush the “insurgency” like a bug. But we’d have to kill a lot of civilians.
I understand the rationale for this. And I respect the rationale. Iraq didn’t attack us. This was a preemptive war against a hypothetical threat. So we didn’t feel the moral authority to be as iron-fisted as we would otherwise be.
It was a policy born of hope and nursed on faith—trusting that the Iraqis would view us the way we were viewing them, that they would reciprocate our initiative and resolve.
But there’s a reason the Iraqis didn’t overthrow Saddam all by themselves. There was a lack of political will. They were risk-adverse. And this has carried over into the aftermath.
And it presents Pres. Bush with a painful calculation. The only way of knowing for sure that something is a lost cause is if you give it your all. The downside to that strategy is that if you lose, you lose everything.
The alternative is to cut your losses. The downside to that strategy is that you will never know, had you given it a little more time and effort, if you would have succeeded.
Is it better to lose more troops and win, or lose fewer troops and lose? If you cut your losses, then your losses are a dead loss. They died in vain.
If you hang on a little longer, you may succeed, and even if that comes at a greater cost to life and limb, the losses are not a dead loss. They did not die in vain. The strategic objective was achieved.
I don’t know that there’s any correct answer to that dilemma.
For clarity of analysis, I’m putting this all a bit too abstractly. Even if the Iraq war was a tactical error, it was not an utter waste of blood and treasure.
i) For even though we paid a high price, we made the enemy pay an even higher price as well. It was costly on both sides. And that has a deterrent effect. Can you afford to mess with the US?
ii) To the extent that Iraq is a microcosm of the Mideast, if the Iraqis fumble their chance at freedom, then we learn an important lesson about the nature of our enemy. We learn just what we can expect from the Muslim world, as well as the rest of the world.
iii) Many supporters and opponents alike view civil war as the worst case scenario, but if Iraq degenerates into civil war after we leave, then it’s no threat to us because the Muslims will be too busy killing their next-door neighbor to kill us from afar.
Finally, I’ll support the war as long as the troops support the war. If the troops turn against it, then I’ll turn against it.