It has become the common narrative, pretty much everywhere except in the political Right, that the War in Iraq was a horrible mistake, that there were no WMDs, that thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died for nothing.
I think this is hogwash, of a fairly high and fetid order.
The first thing that one must understand about the Iraq war is that the people who describe it as a failure for the most part simply didn’t want it to happen in the first place. They believe that, post 9/11, George Bush should not have gone to war. There is a school of thought, prevalent on the political Right, which holds that none of the Depression Era programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt did any good, and that he should have simply sat back and allowed the crash to abate naturally. There may be some validity to this from a strictly economic point of view, but from a historical point of view it is severely delusional. FDR had been elected to “do something” about the Depression. It was politically impossible for him to NOT do something. Anyone who maintains that he should have refrained from trying anything clearly either has no conception of the historical and political situation, or simply wants FDR to be the Bad Guy and is willing to ignore reality to make him so. And with Bush, it was clearly politically impossible to not “do something”; the public wouldn’t have stood for it. To pretend otherwise is to ignore inconvenient facts to arrive at a desired conclusion.
The second thing one must understand about the war in Iraq is that on 9/11/2001 we had been at war with Iraq since the First Gulf War. Iraq had never met the terms of surrender for that war, and thus, legally, the war had never ended. A certain amount has been made of the “fact” that the invasion of Iraq was done without a formal declaration of war. This is pig swill. Saddam may have believed that we would not attack because he was not adhering to the terms of surrender, but that belief did not affect us in a legal sense. He was not entitled to another declaration of war; he’d already had one.
Indeed, it was this state of existing war that made an invasion of Iraq an absolute necessity. The entire point of military action in response to 9/11 had to be to demonstrate that stepping outside the bounds of polite international discourse with us has unpleasant consequences. We weren’t, all bloodthirsty rah-rah talk aside, going to hunt down each and every murderous Islamic extremist in the world. What we could hope to do, however, was make a case for the various Islamic countries to police their own. We couldn’t make that case, however, if the last person we went to war with was defying us. The existence of Saddam’s government was old business that had to be cleared off the table if we wanted people to take our new business seriously.
The next thing one has to understand about the Iraq War is that the charge that we found no WMDs is baseless. We found chemical weapons, precursor chemicals, biomass feedstock such as would be used in bio-weapons research, and literally tons of yellowcake uranium. We also found missiles and other delivery systems that could have delivered chemical weapons, or nuclear warheads, or bio-weapons. Under the terms of the surrender in the first Gulf War, Saddam wasn’t supposed to have any of this. To say that we found no WMDs is ridiculous. No, we didn’t find a fueled-and-ready nuclear missile. If there had been one to find, it would have meant that the invasion came too late. The documents that are claimed to show that Saddam didn’t have an active weapons program are beside the point. Even setting aside the issue of possible disinformation, in war you plan for your enemy’s capabilities, which you may be able to guess, not his intentions, which you won’t.
If the Iraq War can be called a failure, it isn’t because of anything George Bush did. The advisability of playing “Let’s Build a Modern Democracy” in a nation that hasn’t been in the top quarter of the civilized countries chart since the 13th century can be argued both ways. What was important about invading Iraq was to provide an object lesson on how truly unpleasant life could get if the United States was your enemy. And that is where things get sticky. The downfall of Saddam seems to have convinced Gaddafi of Libya to renounce WMDs and he shipped the U.S. several tons of materials related to the development of such weapons. But the failure of the political Left to get behind the War seriously blunted the message we needed to send, and that will in all likelihood have serious consequences. The Islamic Radical terrorist groups cannot destroy the United States, but what they can to is anger the American people enough to wage all-out war. During the Bush administration, I ran into several anti-war types who maintained that (as a nation) we had “lashed out in unreasoning hatred” or words to that effect. That is simply silly, and easy to disprove; Mecca and Medina do not (yet) glow in the dark. But if there are more and more serious attacks on American soil, “unreasoning hatred” is a real possibility. No national military in the Middle East could stop us from doing pretty much whatever we wanted to. We would end up in control of that part of the world, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody concerned. President Bush had a short list of not very good options on September 12th 2001, and he probably chose the best one available to him. Unfortunately, that restraint may go for nought, and if it does it will be largely the fault of the people who so desperately wanted Bush to fail.
The United Nations model of dealing with Islamic extremism is a failure. Negotiating with terrorists has gained us nothing, and them much. At the same time, pursuing the 19th century’s model of dealing with Islamic fanatics – conquest and colonization – is something we should avoid. We do not want to rule large parts of the third world, and would be bad at it. President Bush tried to use Iraq and Afghanistan as object lessons, in the hope that the Islamic world , given a strong incentive, would police its own. Undermining that out of a distaste for Bush, or a desire to be fashionably Liberal, was an act of catastrophic irresponsibility.