A Noble Project, Badly Managed
Five years later, the debate over the Iraq war rages as hot as when it began. We have never ceased looking over our shoulders. We have attempted to fight our way forward with our eyes fixed backward.
Mired in these old arguments, it becomes impossible to see anything new.
Just last week for example, the Pentagon released a study of 600,000 captured Iraqi documents. These documents detailed Saddam Hussein’s long history of support for Islamic terrorist groups, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad — which merged into al-Qaeda in 1998.
Yet this study was almost universally shrugged off: The debate is frozen and cannot accept fresh evidence.
Likewise, it becomes impossible to absorb the success of the new American tactics in Iraq. Iraqi civilian casualties have fallen to the lowest level since the liberation of Baghdad, down by more than three-quarters since November, 2007. U.S. casualties are down, Iraqi police casualties are down, car bombings are down, the flow of refugees is down. Some 80,000 previously unemployed Iraqi men now draw salaries to serve in the pro-government militia. Iraq oil exports rose 9% in 2007 over 2006, and have risen in January and February over their levels in 2007.
We slight the improving internal politics of Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni parties have ended their boycott of the parliament. Evidence accumulates that young Iraqis are turning away from religious extremism: the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in particular draws much smaller crowds at his rallies.
Even direct statements by the Iraqi insurgents receive little attention. On Feb. 12, 2008, a newspaper in Qatar published a lengthy interview with Abu-Turab al-Jaza’iri, the al-Qaeda commander in northern Iraq. As translated by Memri.org, al-Jaza’iri acknowledged: “It is true that we have lost several cities and have been forced to withdraw from others, after a large number of [Sunni] tribal leaders betrayed Islam and when their tribe members joined forces against us.” He described al-Qaeda’s position as “very difficult,” and acknowledged that in certain regions, there was even “paralysis.”
In Memri’s dry summation: “Asked about possible reasons for the decrease in al-Qaeda’s popularity, Al-Jaza’iri said that indiscriminately murdering civilians had been a mistake that had “harmed the organization’s reputation.” You don’t say.
It is never safe to make predictions about Iraq. The optimistic early projections of those like me who supported the war have proven disastrously wrong: I admit that. But equally wrong have been the dire predictions of 2006 and 2007, before the surge, when not exactly impartial observers such as former Clinton secretary of state Madeleine Albright were damning the war as “the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.”
The Iraq war has been frustrating, protracted, costly and bloody. But it has also achieved large and important goals, of immense benefit both to the West and to the Arab Middle East:
The war removed from power an aggressive and dangerous dictator who did support terrorism on a very large scale, who did run nuclear and biological weapons programs in the 1980s and 1990s, who did use genocidal tactics against his country’s Kurdish minority and who did start two wars against his neighbours Iran and Kuwait.
The war has produced an elected government in Iraq, and put an Arab army into the field against an al-Qaeda insurgency. Television audiences across the Middle East have had to watch Islamic terrorism murder not just Westerners, Indians and Jews, but fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims.
The war has mobilized an Arab coalition against Iranian adventurism. Countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which had played a double game on extremism and terrorism in the 1990s, have been forced into a much less ambiguous alliance with the United States.
Al-Qaeda is on the verge of suffering an emphatic and discrediting military defeat, brought on by its own fanaticism, incompetence and bloodthirstiness. Al-Qaeda gunmen have chopped the fingers off Iraqis caught smoking cigarettes, attacked the families of prominent tribal leaders — even on one occasion forbidden merchants to display cucumbers and tomatoes in the same vegetable stall. (Traditional Islam does not require the separation of vegetables, but the sex-obsessed Islamists regard cucumbers as too phallic and tomatoes as too breast-like to be allowed near one another.)
These are real gains, and they point the way to a very different verdict on Iraq from that most often heard.
Iraq remains, of course, a very unpopular war, inside the United States and around the world. Yet the politics of Iraq are nothing like those of America’s previous unpopular war, Vietnam. This week, antiwar groups called for giant demonstrations to protest the war’s anniversary. Only about 1,000 people showed up in Washington, with comparably small numbers in other major cities.
While millions of Americans regard Iraq as a mistake, only a fanatical few dare to suggest that it was somehow morally wrong to topple the murderous dictator Saddam. What offends Americans about Iraq is lack of success. The negative public judgment on the war is a judgment on the war’s management — and better management will lead to a more favourable public judgment.
No excuses can be made for the war’s bad management, and especially for the unconscionable delay in correcting early mistakes. It was plain by the summer of 2003 that things were going wrong — yet not until the summer of 2007 did President Bush change course.
The President has received harsh criticism for this stubbornness, and deservedly so. Yet at the same time, a less stubborn man would probably have folded up in Iraq in the dark days of 2006 and 2007. Had, for example, John Kerry won the 2004 election, the United States likely would have fled Iraq at the low point, accepting humiliating defeat for itself and bequeathing chaos and theocracy to Iraqis.
Instead, at this five-year anniversary we see better grounds for hope than at any time in a long time. The surge will end this summer. U.S. troops will begin to withdraw. If Iraq remains stable, more troops will soon follow, and the U.S. and coalition role inside Iraq can then shrink.
In the end, the struggle in Iraq is the Iraqis’ struggle. But the West can provide decisive aid. Thanks to the heroic sacrifices of American service men and women — and also, I should add, to a new battle-plan devised in large part by my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute — that aid has achieved more and better results in the past few months than at any time since the war began.
Does this mean success is at last in sight in Iraq? No — but it means that for the first time in a long time, success looks like a realistic goal.
If anything deserves commemoration this week, it is not some arbitrary anniversary, but instead that astonishing turnaround, rich with hope for Iraq and the wider world.