Iraq and a Hard Place – Aug. 30, 2010

President Obama is going to make a speech tomorrow to commemorate the departure of the last combat brigade from Iraq.  It promises to be an exercise in selective memory.

Obama, of course, made opposition to the war in Iraq a big part of his political persona, one of the many things that endeared him to the left.  But once in office, he followed the policies of his predecessor, although he never seriously acknowledged it.  I applaud him for the policy choices, although not for his refusal to admit that if Bush had not doubled down on his commitment to Iraq, Obama would be faced with a much more difficult situation there than he is.  The surge is what has brought us to the point of victory in Iraq, and it is to Bush’s credit that he did not heed the counsels of failure that were swirling in late 2006.  That courageous decision made the difference between a civil war of a savagery seldom seen, and the fitful proto-democracy we have today.
You can count on Obama to decline any mention of that, which is of a piece with his graceless refusal to say anything remotely positive about his predecessor.
It also rankles that Obama studiously ignores the word, “victory.”  I don’t know what his view of combat is, but one can make a decent speculation based on his use of words.  After all, this is not a guy who is a careless speaker.  This view doesn’t seem to have much in common with a contest in which there are good guys and bad guys, and from which the desire is for an unambiguous win for the good guys.  I’d be willing to bet that the military sees it this way – and well they should, when they see the depravity displayed by the other side – and to hear their Commander-in-Chief speak in more nuanced terms can’t be great for morale.  Instead of victory, Obama promises a “responsible end” to the war.  This says that all the suffering and the dying that our boys and girls have been doing over there has not been in pursuit of a vital national objective, but rather a mistake, and the sooner we extricate our boots from the mud the better.  Just makes you want to go down to recruiters right now, doesn’t it?
So I thought it would be a good idea to do a little revisionist history concerning the received wisdom that the Iraq War was a mistake.  It may be a few years before it is sufficiently in the rear view mirror for this view to become widely acknowledged, but mark my words, it will come.
First of all, let’s address the charge that the war was illegal.  Kofi Annan has said so, although he was typically wishy-washy about it.  There are several lines of argument that say the war was justified in international law.  Start with the end of the first Gulf War.  Saddam was spared annihilation back in 1991, on the promise of certain behaviors, including the cessation of all hostile and provocative actions.  Those terms were clearly and repeatedly violated over the next twelve years, meaning that he had ruptured the cease-fire agreement and a state of war continued.  Secondly, the UN passed seventeen resolutions condemning Iraqi behavior over that time, and the last of them, 1441, included both a deadline and the explicit threat of force if the deadline passed without compliance.  Needless to say, the deadline passed.  Annan’s point was that it should have been followed by a separate authorization of force, but the wording of the resolution does not call for that; and the larger complaint is, that if the UN says “or else” and the consequences don’t follow, the UN will sink ever further into irrelevance.  Finally, the UN Charter includes a clause specifically authorizing nations to defend themselves.  The Bush Administration took the position that the attacks of 2001 showed that the traditional standard of legal war – responding to an attack – was to an extent outmoded in a world of highly capable international terrorists, particularly if they were armed with weapons of mass destruction.  In that case forbearance would be lethal.
Critics had a field day saying that Bush had attacked the wrong country, that Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11.  While that is not strictly true, it is beside the point.  Saddam clearly had links to terrorists and WMD ambitions if not (as we found out later) actual stockpiles of the weapons.  Add to that a hatred of the US, a megalomaniacal ambition to be the next Saladin, and a volatile reaction to the world’s ostracism, and the situation was not one that a responsible president could afford to wait and observe.
Let’s turn to the WMD issue.  Again, there is an accepted short hand: “Bush lied, people died.”  But Bush didn’t lie any more than Al Roker lies when he predicts sunshine and gets rain.  Being wrong about something that is uncertain is not the same as lying, as hard as it is to admit.  I recall a feisty exchange between Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore at the 2004 Convention where O’Reilly made virtually the same point and Moore insisted, somewhat comically, that no matter what they knew beforehand, if the outcome was different, it was a lie.
And if they believed wrongly, they had plenty of company.  Every single intelligence operation in the Western World, as well as the Russians, and the Israelis (no fools, they) was convinced that Saddam had WMD.  There may have been doubters here and there (and they of course go public and make it seem like they were the Cassandras ignored by a war-crazed Bush), but the undeniable consensus was that the threat was real.  And why not believe that?  Saddam had used poison gas on his own people and on the Iranians.  High-ranking defectors – including his own son-in-law – told of both biological and nuclear programs.  Even his own generals believed that neighboring units had battlefield WMD.  And finally, if he was clean, why the elaborate cat-and-mouse games with UNSCOM and the inspectors?  Why needlessly keep the crushing system of sanctions alive?  Why put up with all the pressure?
If there is a logical explanation, it was that Saddam was faking it for reasons of image, the appearance of power, the fantasy of the regional strongman.  Maybe he felt he needed to pose to fend off the Iranians; maybe it was for domestic consumption; probably he thought that his bluff would not be called.  After all, the UN has a long and ignoble history of being bamboozled by dictators (as Saddam himself was proving with his corruption of the Oil for Food program – that’s a scandal that the world’s betters conveniently swept under the rug).  But he failed to reckon with the unsophisticated simpleton, Bush, who took him at his word and crushed him.
It might also be useful to imagine what the Middle East might be like if Saddam were still in power.  Here, obviously, one can only guess, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that, as grave as the risks are in that region today, they would be immeasurably worse if we didn’t have a democratic government in Baghdad.
Start by saying that the people of Iraq would still be living in daily fear of the midnight knock on the door.  The torture, the human shredders, the bodies dumped on their families’ doorsteps – by the government, mind you – would still be a fact of life.  And it would, in all probability, be worse.  Because it is true but seldom acknowledged that the sanctions regime was breaking down. Many of our allies, beginning with the French, were beginning to agitate for a relaxation of the sanctions.  If the weapons inspectors had concluded there were no WMD, the sanctions regime would have collapsed in a hurry.
People were saying at the time that we “had Saddam in a box” and he wasn’t much of a threat.  But the box was fraying, and the presence of 100,000 US troops on his periphery, which persuaded him to let in the inspectors, would not have survived the end of the sanctions.  Within a year or two, Saddam would have emerged stronger and more dangerous than ever, both to his own people and to the region.
As the Duelfer Report of 2005 pointed out, Saddam may have been faking the existence of WMD stockpiles, but he was deadly serious about rebuilding the capability, as soon as the sanctions were lifted.  Even without WMD, he would have been butting heads with Iran, and Shiites in Iraq would not be a happy community, nor would the Kurds.  With WMD, he would be competing with Tehran for pre-eminence in the region, and we would have had not one but two nuclear rogue states in the region.  Israel would hardly stand for that, since there would always be the risk that they would bury the hatchet long enough to annihilate Tel Aviv, and the likelihood of a conflagration such as they speak of in Revelations would have been high.
The world is far better off with Saddam gone.  The Iraqi people are immeasurably better off, even if some die-hard terrorists refuse to admit their train has left the station.  The region, while still an immensely dangerous place for people of good will, would be worse if he were still there.  And, quite possibly, somewhere down the road, the world will look at an Iraqi people that settles their differences at the ballot box instead of the with anonymous bomb, and remark that even in the heart of Arabia people want to be their own rulers.
And that’s what Bush was trying to prove all along.
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