Before Iraq

The assumptions of a forgetful chattering class are badly off the mark.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

What is written about Iraq now is exclusively acrimonious. The narrative is the suicide bomber and IED, never how many terrorists we have killed, how many Iraqis have been given a chance for something different than the old nightmare, or how a consensual government has withstood enemies on nearly every front.

Long forgotten is the inspired campaign that removed a vicious dictator in three weeks. Nor is much credit given to the idealistic efforts to foster democracy rather than just ignoring the chaos that follows war — as we did after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, or following our precipitous departure from Lebanon and Somalia. And we do not appreciate anymore that Syria was forced to vacate Lebanon; that Libya gave up its WMD arsenal; that Pakistan came clean about Dr. Khan; and that there have been the faint beginnings of local elections in the Gulf monarchies.

Yes, the Middle East is “unstable,” but for the first time in memory, the usual killing, genocide, and terrorism are occurring in a scenario that offers some chance at something better. Long before we arrived in Iraq, the Assads were murdering thousands in Hama, the Husseins were gassing Kurds, and the Lebanese militias were murdering civilians. The violence is not what has changed, but rather the notion that the United States can do nothing about it; the U.S. has shown itself willing to risk much to support freedom in place of tyranny or theocracy in the region.

Instead of recalling any of this, Iraq is seen only in the hindsight of who did what wrong and when. All the great good we accomplished and the high ideals we embraced are drowned out by the present violent insurgency and the sensationalized effort to turn the mayhem into an American Antietam or Yalu River. Blame is never allotted to al Qaeda, the Sadr thugs, or the ex-Baathists, only to the United States, who should have, could have, or would have done better in stopping them, had its leadership read a particular article, fired a certain person, listened to an exceptional general, or studied a key position paper.

We also forget that Iraq, contrary to popular slander, was not “cooked up” in Texas or at a Washington, D.C., neocon think tank. Rather, it was a reaction to two events: a decade of appeasement of Middle East tyrants and terrorists, and the disaster of September 11. If one were to go back and read the most popular accounts of the first Gulf War, The Generals’ War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor of Cobra II fame, or Rick Atkinson’sCrusade, or research the bi-partisan arguments that raged across the opinion pages in the 1990s following the defeat and survival of Saddam Hussein, certain themes reappear constantly that surely help to explain our current presence inside Iraq.

One was shared regret that Saddam was left in power in 1991. No sooner had the war ended than George Bush Sr. appeared, not joyous in our success, but melancholy, and then distraught, once images of the butchered and refugees beamed back from our “victory” in Iraq. Culpability for thousands of dead Shiites and Kurds, the need for no-fly zones, and worry about reconstituted WMD were the charges then leveled.

The heroes? A troubled former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz (read TheGenerals’ War) who almost alone felt tactical success had not translated into strategic victory, and that we were profoundly amoral to have let a mass murderer remain in power, while thousands of brave revolutionaries were butchered just a few miles away from our forces.

We praise the first Gulf War now. Yet, almost immediately in its aftermath, critics accused us of overkill, of using too many soldiers to blast too many poor Iraqis. The charge then was not that we had too few troops, but too many; not that the Pentagon had understated the need for troops, but overstated and sent too many; not that we had too few allies, but an unwieldy coalition that hampered American options; not that the effort was too costly, but that we were too crassly commercial in forcing allies to pony up cash as if war were supposed to be a profitable enterprise.

The generic criticism in the 1990s of the United States, both here and abroad, was that America bombed from on high, and sometimes, as in Belgrade or Africa, even indiscriminately — its only concern being fear of losses, not worry over civilian collateral damage or ending the war decisively on the ground. Indeed, in Europe there was voiced a certain cynicism that we were cowardly turning war into an antiseptic enterprise (the “body bag syndrome”), adjudicated only by our concern not to engage with the enemy below.

There were other issues now forgotten. After the acrimony in the debate over Iraq in 1990, followed by the successful removal of Saddam Hussein, Democrats were determined never again to be on the wrong side of the national security debate. So they supported the present war because they were convinced that after Panama, Gulf War I, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, they could regain credibility by supporting muscular action that seemed to pose little risk of failure. That is why only recently have Democratic supporters of the war bailed — and only when polls suggested that any fear of “cut and run” or McGovernism would be outweighed by tapping into popular dissatisfaction with Iraq.

Realism is much in vogue these days, with James Baker returning as the purported fireman, and even Democrats demanding talks with horrific dictators in Iran and North Korea. That was not the mantra of the 1990s. The Reaganism that rejected Cold War realpolitik and risked brinkmanship to bring down a rotten and murderous Soviet Empire was considered both the wiser and more ethical stance, as even Democrats reformulated their opportunistic criticism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mutually Assured Destruction, Kissingerian tolerance for the status quo, and mere containment — all that was scoffed at in the afterglow of Reagan’s squeeze that popped the Soviet bubble.

Not long ago, abdication — from Rwanda or Haiti, or from the Balkans for a decade — not intervention, was the supposed sin. There were dozens of Darfurs in the 1990s, when charges flew of moral indifference. The supposition then — as now — was that those who called for boots on the ground to stop a genocide would not unlikely be the first to abdicate responsibility once the coffins came home and the military was left fighting an orphaned war.

Apparently all the high-minded talk of reform — Aristotle rightly scoffed about morality being easy in one’s sleep — was predicated only on cost-free war from 30,000 feet. Now the wisdom is that Colin Powell — the supposed sole sane and moral voice of the present administration — was drowned out by shrill neocon chicken hawks. But that was not the consensus of the 1990s. In both books and journalism, he was a Hamlet-like figure who paused before striking the needed blow, and so was pilloried by the likes of a Michael Gordon or Madeline Albright for not using the full force of the American military to intervene for moral purposes. That was then, and this is now, and in-between we have a costly war in Iraq that has taken the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans.

The unexpected carnage of September 11 explains so much of our current situation. It has made the realist, neo-isolationist George Bush into an advocate for Wilsonianism abroad, but only on the calculation that the roots of Islamic fascism rested in the nexus between dictatorship and autocracy — the former destroys prosperity and freedom, and the latter makes use of terrorists to deflect rising popular dissatisfaction against the United States.

The U.S. Senate and House voted for war in Iraq, not merely because they were deluded about the shared intelligence reports on WMD (though deluded they surely were), but also because of the 22 legitimate casus belli they added just in case. And despite the recent meae culpae, those charges remain as valid today as they were when they were approved: Saddam did try to kill a former American president; the U.N. embargo was violated, as were its inspection protocols; the 1991 accords were often ignored; the genocide of brave Kurds did happen; suicide bombers were being given bounties; terrorists, including those involved into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were given sanctuary by Saddam; and on and on.

So it is not those charges, but we who leveled them, that have changed. Americans’ problem with the war is not that it was not moral, but that it has been deemed too costly for the perceived benefits that might accrue.

The conventional wisdom was that, after Afghanistan (7 weeks of fighting) and its postbellum stability (a government within a year), a more secular Iraq (3 weeks of fighting) would follow the same timetable. In September 2002, well after the “miracle” in Afghanistan, I listened to a high-ranking admiral pontificate that war on the ground was essentially over in the new age of Green Berets and laptops, that after Bosnia and Afghanistan, air power and Special Forces were all that were needed.

This did not come from Rumsfeld surrogates, but was a fair enough reflection of the wild new intoxication before Iraq — that a supposed “revolution in military affairs” had changed the ancient rules of war, as if our technology would now give us exemption from hurt. Many of those who now most shrilly condemn the war had in fact years ago rattled their sabers for “moral” wars to eliminate dictators — predicated on just this foolish utopian notion that GPS bombing and laser-guided missiles had at last given us the tools needed for removing the tumors with precision and at little cost, as we conducted lifesaving moral surgery on diseased states.

No, nothing has changed about Iraq other than its tragic tab. Changes of view are fine, as long as those who now criticize the effort at least acknowledge the climate in which fighting in Iraq was born, and the real conditions under which they themselves once supported the war — and lost heart.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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