Hitchens on 5th Anniversary of Iraq War
As part of a retrospective commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, Christopher Hitchens admits to having been right all along. He does, however, reject the premise of the question.
Anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with Iraq would have to know that a heavy U.S. involvement in the affairs of that country began no later than 1968, with the role played by the CIA in the coup that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein’s wing of the Baath Party to power. Not much more than a decade later, we come across persuasive evidence that the United States at the very least acquiesced in the Iraqi invasion of Iran, a decision that helped inflict moral and material damage of an order to dwarf anything that has occurred in either country recently. In between, we might note minor episodes such as Henry Kissinger’s faux support to Kurdish revolutionaries, encouraging them to believe in American support and then abandoning and betraying them in the most brutal and cynical fashion.
If you can bear to keep watching this flickering newsreel, it will take you all the way up to the moment when Saddam Hussein, too, switches sides and courts Washington, being most in favor in our nation’s capital at the precise moment when he is engaged in a campaign of extermination in the northern provinces and retaining this same favor until the very moment when he decides to “engulf” his small Kuwaiti neighbor. In every decision taken subsequent to that, from the decision to recover Kuwait and the decision to leave Saddam in power to the decisions to impose international sanctions on Iraq and the decision to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, stating that long-term coexistence with Saddam’s regime was neither possible nor desirable, there was a really quite high level of public participation in our foreign policy. We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, “lied into war.” We became steadily more aware that the option was continued collusion with Saddam Hussein or a decision to have done with him.
This is all true, of course. History isn’t a series of discrete events but an interwoven tapestry of actions and reactions. At the same time, though, it’s rather silly to pretend that things didn’t change dramatically with the decision to invade in 2003.
Regardless, Hitchens argues that, while the reasons for war have been “overshadowed by the unarguable hash that was made of the intervention itself,” he nonetheless thinks the good has outweighed the bad.
A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society. Further afield, a perfectly defensible case can be made that the Syrian Baathists would not have evacuated Lebanon, nor would the Qaddafi gang have turned over Libya’s (much higher than anticipated) stock of WMD if not for the ripple effect of the removal of the region’s keystone dictatorship.
This is all right so far as it goes. And we can’t know what evils would have occurred had we not entered. But we’re at least partly to blame for those which have happened following our invasion. Tens of thousands of innocents have died. While large numbers of al Qaeda terrorists have been killed, so too have many been recruited; I’m not sure that anyone knows how the balance sheet has come out. And Iraq is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Reconciling this is difficult, as Hitchens admits:
None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves. There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it’s not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn’t count, and we are not involved. Nonetheless, the very thing that most repels people when they contemplate Iraq, which is the chaos and misery and fragmentation (and the deliberate intensification and augmentation of all this by the jihadists), invites the inescapable question: What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?
The past years have seen us both shamed and threatened by the implications of the Berkeleyan attitude, from Burma to Rwanda to Darfur. Had we decided to attempt the right thing in those cases (you will notice that I say “attempt” rather than “do,” which cannot be known in advance), we could as glibly have been accused of embarking on “a war of choice.” But the thing to remember about Iraq is that all or most choice had already been forfeited. We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something.
That’s the question, really. Hitchens is a liberal interventionist rather than a neoconservative but their policy prescriptions amount to the same thing.
I’m very much in the Colin Powell “You broke it, you bought it” school. Given that we toppled Iraq’s regime and set out to create a model Mesopotamian democracy, we’ve got a responsibility to keep trying so long as there’s some hope of success. I disagree, however, that we have a responsibility to attempt to right every wrong that exists around the world.
While there’s no question that there was a humanitarian argument for going to war in Iraq and that it comprised a key element of President Bush’s speeches to the nation and the international community, that wasn’t the argument that carried the day. The nation simply wouldn’t have supported invasion absent the fears of Saddam building of weapons of mass destruction and using them against us or our friends or selling them to our enemies.