Clive Crook has a very provocative piece in the current National Journal arguing that, in hindsight, the Iraq War was the wrong decision even though we’re now stuck seeing it through:
If America and its allies are going to stay the course in Iraq, their leaders can hardly admit that the intervention was a mistake in the first place. But other advocates of the war cannot claim the same license. They owe the people they debated before the war an honest answer to the question, “So, now do you admit that you were wrong?”
Advocates of the war, such as myself, could say yes to that question and still believe (as even the people who were against the war from the beginning ought to believe) that starting from here, the only honorable course is to persevere, that to quit now and leave Iraq to its fate would be wrong. We armchair champions of the war could take that position, even if political necessity forbids Bush and Blair to do the same. My answer to the question is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we advocates of the war were indeed wrong. But it is important to be clear about exactly how we were wrong.
By itself, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction made the venture, with hindsight, a mistake. Iraq’s supposed WMD were not the only reason for attacking Saddam, but they were a main reason. *** Many of Bush’s critics in America and Europe want to believe that he and his allies just lied about this — saying the war was about disarming Iraq, while knowing that there were no WMD. By every plausible account, this is not true. *** Even if the failure to find WMD were the only thing to have gone wrong, it would have been enough, with hindsight, to shift the balance of pros and cons against the war — but much else has gone wrong as well. Postwar planning was weak. Too few resources were committed to the task. And resistance to the occupation was stronger than expected. As a result, the coalition forces have been unable to provide security, the necessary condition for everything else the coalition wants to see happen, from functioning democratic institutions to investment and economic recovery.
The greatest blow to the hopes of most advocates of the war, however, has not been the postwar errors of planning and tactics, and not even the failure to find WMD, but the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the shifty response of the administration to those revelations. It is difficult to exaggerate the lasting damage those images have caused. In the eyes of the world, they make a mockery of America’s claims to have removed Saddam in the name of liberty and democracy.
The war was started for reasons that looked sound at the time. History’s verdict might still be that it was a good war to have fought. In any event, the allies must continue to work in the hope of that eventual success. But can anybody seriously argue that, knowing what they now know about the unfolding of events in Iraq, the allies would willingly do the same thing again? Sadly, when you recall that the West still has enemies that may need to be confronted in future, the answer is no.
In several senses, Crook is right. The lead-up to the war was contentious and, knowing what we know now, quite of few of the advocates of the war would have come down the other way. I suspect I would have, as I’ve always been skeptical of using the military for nation building. Indeed, I was very much a Realist on the war, rejecting the Administration’s arguments for it until roughly the time that North Korea announced that it had nuclear weapons. Ulimately, the prospect of a nuclear-armed and thus uncontainable Saddam pushed me into the pro-war camp.
On the other hand, I wonder how many wars that we now view as just would have met with popular approval in their midst. The U.S. Civil War, for example, would almost certainly not have been fought if Lincoln–let alone the public–had known ahead of time that over half a million would be killed and many times that maimed for life. The initial northern war aim of preserving the Union would certainly not have been deemed worth that price. The abolition of slavery, which became the war aim well into the conflict, has made it seem worthwhile in the hindsight of history, but that goal had much less popular support in the North than did Union.
Would we have fought World War I if we had known the cost ahead of time? Or that we’d have to fight it again thirty years later? How about Korea? Certainly, we’d have avoided Vietnam; a good thing in hindsight.
Indeed, World War II is the lone high cost war since the War for Independence that would likely have commanded popular support had the costs been known up front. And, indeed, I’m not sure WWII would survive this test had we not been attacked at Pearl Harbor. We were quite content to let Hitler have his way in Europe–participating only with materiel support–for quite a few years until Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the excuse he needed to send us to war.