Torn Apart Over Iraq

Why do we keep fighting each other over Iraq?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online


Most paleocons did not support either the attack on Afghanistan or Iraq — and did not in the sincere belief it was not in the interest of the United States. From the Right they believed both were a waste of precious American resources overseas, and would only prompt another dangerous increase in the powers of the federal government here at home. Their worry was not so much in the use of violence against radical Islamicists, but rather the cost to the United States, both in the short-term in lives and treasure, and the long-term implications of “imperialism” on the fabric of the republic.

Many agreed on the Left that Afghanistan and especially Iraq were bad ideas. Their much different complaint was no so much it weakened American interests here or abroad (otherwise they would support the war), but that America is by nature suspect in its use of power and oppresses third-world poor abroad. The lexicon of left-wing anti-Americanism is multifaceted: colonialist, hegemonic, imperialist, racist, or capitalist. Take your pick: We were attacking indigenous peoples either for profit (e.g, Halliburton, the mythical Afghanistan pipeline, the transnational oil companies, private contractors, etc.), or out of racism and ethnocentric chauvinism.


Liberals, moderates, and conservatives could all fall into this second group, who supported the removal of the Taliban and to a lesser degree Saddam Hussein. Although some realists of both parties thought the Iraqi war, unlike Afghanistan, was a mistake, perhaps slightly more supported it nonetheless — with the proviso that we summarily leave on completion, our mission being to weaken the nexus of Baathism, petrol-dollars, and terrorism, not the impractical notion of prompting democracy.

To the Punitivists, the no-fly-zones, Operation Desert Fox, and the Oil-for-Food embargo of the last decade (keeping Saddam in his “box”) was the right template, as was the earlier bombing of Milosevic’s forces from the air. There is a limited logic of sorts to their vision: Do not let the terrorist enemies of the United States close enough to our conventional military, and do not squander our assets in theaters far from our real worries in Korea, China, or Europe. If a Mullah Omar or Saddam pops up, smack them down, and don’t get involved in the larger existential questions of why or how they are there in the first place. In their view, a 9/11 was not so much a refutation of their strategy of chronic reprisals with cruise missiles and bombs to pay back each terrorist incident, but a simple tactical lapse on the part of our home defenses — and thus correctable in the future.


Sometimes called neoconservatives, neo-Wilsonians, idealists — and far worse — this group also, at least originally, was made up of moderate Democrats and Republicans. They felt a long-term solution to the quarter-century pathology of the Middle East after September 11 (at least dating back to the Iranian hostage-taking of 1979) was possible only by staying on after the removal of the Taliban and Saddam and changing the political landscape to give the Arab street a third choice beyond radical Islam and either leftwing or rightwing dictatorship.

While it is common to say that the removal of Saddam was on the pre-September 11 presidential agenda — thus the now much quoted January 26, 1998, Project for a New American Century letter to President Clinton of 1998 calling for Saddam’s removal — it probably was not. Neither President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell nor National Security Advisor Rice signed the request for preemption. George W. Bush campaigned against nation-building of the type Clinton had engaged in the Balkans, and was worried about dispersing our military in peace-keeping theaters where they were asked to do things other than just fight.

September 11 changed all that.


Three facts stand out about the current political infighting.

First, the American people were not so much ideological as prone to align themselves with the group that seemed to best ensure their own security at the least cost. Right before the March 2003 war, there was an overwhelming consensus to remove Saddam. But the messy occupation eroded that margin substantially. Perhaps only 40 percent still support the notion of taking Saddam out and staying on to create a democracy. Another 60 percent are probably evenly divided in thinking post facto that we should never have gone in, or left as soon as his statue fell.

Someone could write an interesting article on the changing attitudes of our elites, especially U.S. senators and pundits — with then and now quotes — whose views reflected the changing pulse of the battlefield. Reading the transcripts of what over 70 senators (especially Senators Kerry and Clinton) said about the October 2002 Senate resolution authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam seems surreal these days.

But the flavor is perhaps best summed up in a comprehensive January 2003 speech, less than four months before the war that Sen. Kerry gave at Georgetown University:

Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator, leading an oppressive regime. He presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation. He miscalculated an eight-year war with Iran. He miscalculated the invasion of Kuwait. He miscalculated America’s response to that act of naked aggression. He miscalculated the result of setting oilrigs on fire. He miscalculated the impact of sending scuds into Israel and trying to assassinate an American President. He miscalculated his own military strength. He miscalculated the Arab world’s response to his misconduct. And now he is miscalculating America’s response to his continued deceit and his consistent grasp for weapons of mass destruction.

When the war looked like it would be over in three weeks, most supported it. When it seemed like the terrorist insurrection would go on indefinitely most did not. If it looks today like a democracy will stabilize, and spread to adjoining countries, all will be for it even still.

Second, strange alliances have emerged. The American Conservativeand The Nation always agreed that we had no business in Iraq — and perhaps Afghanistan as well. The Council on Foreign Relations Establishment luminaries on both Left and Right, from veterans in the Carter administration to the Bush I Cabinet, voiced realist worries that transcended their own past political differences over the Cold War, the Balkans, and Central America. Just as there was no telling a far-Left from a far-Right pundit in condemning Iraq, so too it was just as impossible to determine whether a realist critic had once worked for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, or Bill Clinton.

Third, morality and ethics were adduced by all parties, as the American people couldn’t quite sort out whether intervening or keeping out in the end cost or took more lives. The isolationists thought that they had the moral high ground by ensuring that at least none would be lost in an American war. To them we “stirred up” terrorists abroad rather than were “fighting them over there rather than here.”

The neo-Wilsonians countered that there was already constant death in Saddam’s Iraq and intervention would prove the least costly course — and eventually prevent more September 11-like attacks, and thus save far more people than were lost in the war proper.

Realists who valued stability over idealism seemed to think that more would die in the new Middle East democratic conundrum than under Saddam’s police state or the Syrian reign over Lebanon.


A number of other strange phenomena framed the debate. Critics allege Iraq was all about “getting oil.” But after the invasion, the price of America’s imported petroleum skyrocketed. And far from stealing Iraq’s national resources, for the first time in memory its oil reserves were in the hands of a constitutional government, beyond the control of both the Hussein kleptocracy and French and Russian concessions.

In some sense, George W. Bush tried to address the perceived failure of the 1991 war of not removing Saddam after ejecting him from Kuwait — which invariably was a sort of critique of his own father’s policy. In turn, George H. W. Bush insisted that his limited objective was the right decision — and thus implicitly cast doubt on the present course of his son. When one compares the prior and present roles of both Bush I and Bush II advisers, you can draw any conclusion you like: “We are correcting our prior error,” “We didn’t learn from our prior wisdom of not intervening,” or “We are still arguing with each other.”

Another oddity is the much-quoted “Iraqi people.” Criticism of the war from the Left claimed that we killed civilians and were only imperial in our computations. But polls continued to reveal that the majority in Iraq favors Americans staying until stability is assured, and assumes things are still better than under Saddam.

The Arab world claimed America was unpopular for its past support for dictators — and even more so for its present effort to rectify that by either removing or ostracizing strongmen.

Iraq was alleged as the font for Islamic terrorism, but the terrorists in London equally blamed Afghanistan; bin Laden connected his war to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the U.N. Oil-for-Food program; while Australians were killed in Bali for things like East Timor — and on and on.

Those who worried that we were making Iraq a mess also claimed our reconstruction of that mess was a waste of precious American dollars better spent at home.

Some who cried, “We needed more troops” were often the same who said there should never have been any troops in Iraq at all.

Those who agitated that the U.N. should have approved the war did not say the same in 1999 — when we neither had the U.N. or even the U.S. Senate on record sanctioning our bombers.

Freeing Iraq may strengthen Iran if Baghdad goes theocratic — or may speed its fall if Iraq’s new democracy energizes the Persian masses.


So why this growing angry divide at home about Iraq? First, the war crystallized preexisting but fundamental philosophical differences among segments of the American people.

Consider all the conflicting refrains:

  • We are a republic, not an empire and should husband our resources for ourselves;
  • No, we are a pathological presence abroad and should husband and redistribute our resources for our own poor;
  • No, we are a constabulatory force that should not take sides per se, but rather enforce order and stability in a global commercial system of free markets and trade;
  • No, morally we cannot enjoy democracy at home while allowing it to die abroad;
  • No, realistically our ultimate security rests with as many democracies overseas as possible.

These same fault lines were emerging in 1999 with the bombing of Serbia, but were arrested by the capitulation of Milosevic and the quick conclusion to the war.

Second, we had two national elections of 2002 and 2004. In both cases, it was natural that it was in the interest of the opposition party (the Democrats) to prove that the present policy (since the war was never presented as one requiring abject sacrifice to ensure our very survival) was not working — and, contrarily, the current group in power (the Republicans) to assure that it was.

Had the so-called war on terror that started on September 11, 2001 ended by September 2002, before the congressional elections of autumn 2002, then, like Bill Clinton’s Balkan war, it would not have become as polarizing.

Third and most important, is the battlefield, the final adjudicator of political disagreement. War more often creates political reality, rather than politics determining the course of the war. If the United States winds down its presence, curtails its losses while Iraqis beat the terrorists and ensure a democratic government, then the victory, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, will still have a thousand fathers. WMD controversies will be a distant memory.

But if the insurrection increases, topples the government, and we withdraw from a new Lebanon, then the Iraqi defeat will be an orphan.

My own view remains absolutely unchanged — that we were right, in both a practical and a moral sense, in removing Saddam, that despite depressing lows and giddy highs, the democratic reconstruction of Iraq will work out, that an emerging constitutional government will make both Americans safer and the Middle East in general more stable, that preexisting jihadists are flocking to Iraq and being defeated rather than being created ex nihilo, that anti-Americanism will gradually subside in the Muslim world as millions see that we are consistent in our support of democratic reform, that the United States military has proved itself the preeminent fighting force in the world today and is on the offensive in Iraq and winning a difficult asymmetrical campaign, and that old allies in Europe and Japan and new ones from India to Russia will slowly come to appreciate American constancy and leadership as never before.

But I am not naïve enough to think that most Americans at this moment would agree with all — or any — of that.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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