Getting it Right on Iraq
Taking a page from Christopher Hitchens’ book, Jim Henley admits that he was right on the Iraq War.
Predicting ahead of time that a given war is a bad idea isn’t particularly hard, frankly. It’s a bimodal choice (War/No War) and wars are almost always “bad” in some sense that would be defensible down the road even if the political objectives used as justification for the war are achieved. Getting it right for the right reasons, though, is much harder and Henley did that.
His prescription for doing so in future cases, though, is a mixed bag.
War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.
The opener — “War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually.” — is quite right. Because we have an awesome conventional military advantage over any conceivable opponent, too many people think war is an easy call and should be the first best choice for dealing with bad foreign policy situations. It isn’t.
That said, the extreme conclusion — “Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime.” — is unjustified. The United States has never fought a war that couldn’t legitimately be called a “war of choice.” Without having chosen war, however, we would not have achieved our independence, ended slavery, of defeated European fascism. Wars are almost always tragic and they seldom produce a short-term gain that exceeds their toll. Sometimes, though, they’re worthwhile.
Had I known what I know now about Iraq’s WMD program, I wouldn’t have supported the invasion. Democracy promotion is not a reason to chose war. The goals we set out to achieve were worthwhile but the odds of reaching them were so slim that it wouldn’t have been worth the cost in blood and treasure to try. Sometimes, though, longshots pay off and, had we managed to quickly replace Saddam with a stable, democratic government, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.
The pop psychology of “War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying” strikes me as unworthy of the piece. To be sure, the clinical nature of televised high tech warfare can seem too much like an action movie. And it’s easy to cheer when a building thought to contain Saddam Hussein gets hit by a missile. But it’s silly to suggest that we chose wars for the thrill of it.
The closer — “Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.” — is essentially just a restatement of the opener. Yes, we should be more skeptical of bold claims of quick, easy victories. Yes, we should be more demanding of answers on exit strategies and contingency options. Yes, we should be skeptical of hype and fight against the emotion of the moment.
I’m not absolutely sure that doing those things would have stopped us from going into Iraq five years ago. We had been, as Jim himself was reminding people more than five years ago, in a state of war with Saddam’s regime since August 1990. There was a longstanding, bipartisan consensus that he was a bad actor, trying to development nuclear weapons, and needed to be removed from power. Despite more than a year of public debate leading up to the war, we ultimately concluded, as evidenced by sweeping votes in both Houses of Congress, that war was our best option.
The initial aim of war — the removal of Saddam’s regime — was achieved much more easily than all but the most naive proponents believed. It was the post-“major combat operations” transition phase that went horribly wrong. That might have happened even if we had done everything right, which we decidedly did not. The planning was inadequate, critical decisions were bungled, and the strength and size of the ensuing insurgency grossly underestimated.
None of the failures in the stabilization operation can be attributed to the lust for violence, the sense that war was business as usual, or the manipulation of Karl Rove and company. Mostly, that’s a combination of hubris and the sweet but misguided sense that people everywhere are just like us and that, liberated from their oppressors, they’ll immediately transform into Sweden.