A Few Final Thoughts on Iraq

The news from North Korea is dominating the media cycle this morning, but I feel compelled to offer a few final thoughts regarding Iraq before the images of the last U.S. troops departing the country fade too far into the past.

As the lead author of the monograph Exiting Iraq, as well as at two major papers and more op-eds than I care to count, you would think that I would be exultant that this long war has finally ended.

I am not. My chief regret is that those vocal few who worked to stop the war failed, and that those of us who pushed for a speedy end succeeded only in the latter sense. It ended, but the end wasn’t swift.

The supporters of this war tried to paint war opponents as hostile to American servicemen and women, but their efforts have failed. Most Americans now oppose the war, and yet the vast majority of Americans also support the troops. They understand that the blame for this war falls on those who promoted it, not those tasked with executing it.

Most Americans supported the war at the outset, but they did so on false pretenses. Some believed that Saddam Hussein was connected to al Qaeda. Others thought him to be involved in the events of 9/11. Still others were focused on his supposed capacity for building and deploying mass casualty weapons. A few, perhaps many, Americans believed all of these things. But when these dubious rationales all fell away, we were left with just one justification – establishing a representative government in Iraq – and that rationale was found wanting. Very few Americans believe that U.S. military personnel should be in the business of promoting democracy by force. I strongly suspect that war supporters knew this all along, which is why they worked so hard to hype the supposed threat that Saddam posed to the world.

And, in a more general sense, that explains the precipitous decline in support for this war. Americans grew tired of Iraq because the costs far exceeded the benefits, and this would have been true even if the benefits were more tangible (if, for example, U.S. troops had found a vast stockpile of Saddam’s nukes in a tunnel somewhere).

Military leaders knew that war is never cheap or easy, but the rest of the Inside-the-Beltway crowd told the public at large that this war would be. Perhaps average citizens should have known better, and perhaps they would have paid more attention if they knew that they (or their sons and daughters) might be called to fight. But the wars of the 1990s were not particularly costly, and the first war of the post-9/11 appeared in the summer of 2002 to have followed that earlier pattern. Of course, the war in Afghanistan is now in its eleventh year.

And yet, a stubborn few in Washington refuse to admit what most Americans concluded long ago. I was most discouraged by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comments over the weekend:

“As difficult as [the Iraq war] was,” and the cost in both American and Iraqi lives, “I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world,” he added.

One could say that he was simply performing his role as SecDef. Perhaps he believed that suggesting that the war wasn’t worth it would be discouraging to the troops, and disrespectful to the sacrifices that they made. But that simply plays into the fiction that one has to be anti-military in order to be anti-war. The opposite is closer to the truth.

Even David Frum, one of the war’s most enthusiastic supporters, the man who is credited with coining the term “axis of evil” and who later co-authored a book The End to Eviladmitted in response to a hypothetical question to the GOP candidates, “knowing everything you know now,” would you have supported the decision to go war?:

“No….The world is a better place without Saddam, but as with everything, the question is one of costs and benefits. The costs to the U.S. were too high, the benefits to the U.S. too few.”

In 2008, Americans elected as president a man who opposed the Iraq war before it began, and, in the process, turned aside one of the war’s leading advocates. And yet President Obama’s national security team is at pains to state clearly what is abundantly clear: This war was a mistake, and we should collectively vow to reject the flawed logic and the radical ideology that spawned it. If the Obama team can’t say that, what hope is there that they – or we – have learned anything from this awful affair?