Why We Went To Iraq
Of all that has been written about the play of things in Iraq, nothing that I have seen approximates the truth of what our ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, recently said of this war: “In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came.”
It is odd, then, that critics have launched a new attack on the origins of the war at precisely the time a new order in Iraq is taking hold. But American liberal opinion is obsessive today. Scott McClellan can’t be accused of strategic thinking, but he has been anointed a peer of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. A witness and a presumed insider – a “Texas loyalist” – has “flipped.”
Mr. McClellan wades into the deep question of whether this war was a war of “necessity” or a war of “choice.” He does so in the sixth year of the war, at a time when many have forgotten what was thought and said before its onset. The nation was gripped by legitimate concern over gathering dangers in the aftermath of 9/11. Kabul and the war against the Taliban had not sufficed, for those were Arabs who struck America on 9/11. A war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism, and Saddam Hussein had drawn the short straw. He had not ducked, he had not scurried for cover. He openly mocked America’s grief, taunted its power.
We don’t need to overwork the stereotype that Arabs understand and respond to the logic of force, but this is a region sensitive to the wind, and to the will of outside powers. Before America struck into Iraq, a mere 18 months after 9/11, there had been glee in the Arab world, a sense that America had gotten its comeuppance. There were regimes hunkering down, feigning friendship with America while aiding and abetting the forces of terror.
Liberal opinion in America and Europe may have scoffed when President Bush drew a strict moral line between order and radicalism – he even inserted into the political vocabulary the unfashionable notion of evil – but this sort of clarity is in the nature of things in that Greater Middle East. It is in categories of good and evil that men and women in those lands describe their world. The unyielding campaign waged by this president made a deep impression on them.
Nowadays, we hear many who have never had a kind word to say about the Iraq War pronounce on the retreat of the jihadists. It is as though the Islamists had gone back to their texts and returned with second thoughts about their violent utopia. It is as though the financiers and the “charities” that aided the terror had reconsidered their loyalties and opted out of that sly, cynical trade. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Islamism is on the ropes, if the regimes in the saddle in key Arab states now show greater resolve in taking on the forces of radicalism, no small credit ought to be given to this American project in Iraq.
We should give the “theorists” of terror their due and read them with some discernment. To a man, they have told us that they have been bloodied in Iraq, that they have been surprised by the stoicism of the Americans, by the staying power of the Bush administration.
There is no way of convincing a certain segment of opinion that there are indeed wars of “necessity.” A case can always be made that an aggressor ought to be given what he seeks, that the costs of war are prohibitively high when measured against the murky ways of peace and of daily life.
“Wars are not self-starting,” the noted philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in his seminal book, “Just and Unjust Wars.” “They may ‘break out,’ like an accidental fire, under conditions difficult to analyze and where the attribution of responsibility seems impossible. But usually they are more like arson than accident: war has human agents as well as human victims.”
Fair enough. In the narrow sense of command and power, this war in Iraq is Mr. Bush’s war. But it is an evasion of responsibility to leave this war at his doorstep. This was a war fought with congressional authorization, with the warrant of popular acceptance, and the sanction of United Nations resolutions which called for Iraq’s disarmament. It is the political good fortune (in the world of Democratic Party activists) that Sen. Barack Obama was spared the burden of a vote in the United States Senate to authorize the war. By his telling, he would have us believe that he would have cast a vote against it. But there is no sure way of knowing whether he would have stood up to the wind.
With the luxury of hindsight, the critics of the war now depict the arguments made for it as a case of manipulation and deceit. This is odd and misplaced: The claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were to prove incorrect, but they were made in good faith.
It is also obtuse and willful to depict in dark colors the effort made to “sell” the war.
Wars can’t be waged in stealth, and making the moral case for them is an obligation incumbent on the leaders who launch them. If anything, there were stretches of time, and critical turning points, when the administration abdicated the fight for public opinion.
Nor is there anything unprecedented, or particularly dishonest, about the way the rationale for the war shifted when the hunt for weapons of mass destruction had run aground. True, the goal of a democratic Iraq – and the broader agenda of the war as a spearhead of “reform” in Arab and Muslim lands – emerged a year or so after the onset of the war. But the aims of practically every war always shift with the course of combat, and with historical circumstances. Need we recall that the abolition of slavery had not been an “original” war aim, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was, by Lincoln’s own admission, a product of circumstances? A war for the Union had become a victory for abolitionism.
America had not been prepared for nation-building in Iraq; we had not known Iraq and Iraqis or understood the depth of Iraq’s breakdown. But there was nothing so startling or unusual about the connection George W. Bush made between American security and the “reform” of the Arab condition. As America’s pact with the Arab autocrats had hatched a monster, it was logical and prudent to look for a new way.
“When a calf falls, a thousand knives flash,” goes an Arabic proverb. The authority of this administration is ebbing away, the war in Iraq is unloved, and even the “loyalists” now see these years of panic and peril as a time of exaggerated fear.
It is not easy to tell people of threats and dangers they have been spared. The war put on notice regimes and conspirators who had harbored dark thoughts about America and who, in the course of the 1990s, were led to believe that terrible deeds against America would go unpunished. A different lesson was taught in Iraq. Nowadays, the burden of the war, in blood and treasure, is easy to see, while the gains, subtle and real, are harder to demonstrate. Last month, American casualties in Iraq were at their lowest since 2003.
The Sunnis also have broken with al Qaeda, and the Shiite-led government has taken the war to the Mahdi Army: Is it any wonder that the critics have returned to the origins of the war?
Five months from now, the American public will vote on this war, in the most dramatic and definitive of ways. There will be people who heed Ambassador Crocker’s admonition. And there will be others keen on retelling how we made our way to Iraq.
Mr. Ajami, a Bradley Prize recipient, teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2006).Back to Top