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.

FILED UNDER: General, Iraq War, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    And we can’t know what evils would have occurred had we not entered. But we’re at least partly to blame for those have happened following our invasion.

    Your entire peice seems to ignrore the evils which were already occurring which were stopped as a result of our action…. which as Hitch suggests, must count for something.

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    we “ignore evils” all the time. We ignored them when we hook up with Saddam in the first place. No counts for zero, nada nothing unless there is some benefit to us as a nation. And there were none that could not have been secured by the status quo at the time.

  3. Bithead says:

    I don’t know as I’d put it so, Rick. Say, rather, that we hoped that we could control such evil by means of engagement and containment.

    Which, oddly enough was what the Democrats have been wanting us to do, isn’t it? I mean, it worked so well the first thousand times, huh?

  4. Hal says:

    I’m very much in the Colin Powell “You broke it, you bought it” school.

    I think that whole framing is fallacious. When you destroy someone’s home, for example, you don’t “buy” it. You don’t “own” it. What you do is pay recompense. If you kill a child of someone’s family, you don’t “own” them. You pay them recompense and provide endless apologies for an act you can never repay.

    To frame this as we “own” Iraq because we “broke” it is to buy into the whole argument that we have to stay there because we “own” it. If we broke it by doing such horrific damage, it’s quite reasonable to suggest that we politely leave and provide recompense for our actions which have caused all this to happen in the first place, and to endlessly apologize for something we can never repay.

    If some idiot came storming through my property, killing a large percentage of my family accidentally while trying to catch some bad guys, the absolute *last* thing on earth I’d like him to do would be to hang around forever, doing even more damage and killing even more people. At a minimum, I’d want him out of there while I try to pick up the pieces. Preferably, on his dime.

    To say that Iraq is “ours to fix” is the height of hubris – and that’s relative to the incredible hubris it took to invade a country that didn’t threaten us in any way in a mad plan to “democratize” them.

    We’re a bunch of idiots and the sooner we get out and let them fix this themselves, the better off they’ll be. Sure, we have a responsibility that will be with us for endless decades, given the mess we’ve made. But it does not follow that correct action for us to take is to stay there endlessly, compounding the problem endlessly.

  5. anjin-san says:

    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

    James,

    Since there is “no question’ about this, can you provide some metrics to support it? Cause that’s not really the way I remember things.

  6. Hal says:

    Cause that’s not really the way I remember things.

    There was certainly a lot of “after the fact” repositioning as things went sour. But as far as I can tell, even with numbers that the war supporters will agree to (conservative estimates, by any measure) I’m pretty sure we’ve dramatically surpassed even the most outrageous claims of deaths caused by Saddam.

    Given that, five years on, there’s still hardly an infrastructure to speak of – electricity hardly on and spotty at best, water infra still in tatters, economy in shambles running over 50% rate of unemployment, not to mention the fact that the political infrastructure is essentially non existent – it’s hard to imagine exactly what – on balance – the humanitarian case was/is for the Iraq war.

  7. Pug says:

    I’m very much in the Colin Powell “You broke it, you bought it” school.

    I believe Colin Powell also, except I believe the Powell Doctrine, which was supposed to be a distillation of everything we learned in Vietnam:

    -Have a clear mission.

    -Go in with overwhelming force.

    -Have an exit strategy.

    -Have the support of the American people.

    I guess Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld really didn’t buy into Powell’s doctrine. I guess we really didn’t learn much from Vietnam after all. And I guess we’ll be in Iraq longer than we were in Vietnam.

    George Santayana got it right in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. What is amazing is how quickly we forgot.

  8. mike says:

    I used to be a fan of “we broke it, now we own it” but after 4,000 dead, many 1000s more injured, the hundreds of billions that have been spent, and no end in sight, I think we paid in full.

  9. Anderson says:

    Not believing in God is one thing, but replacing faith in God with faith in George W. Bush is embarrassing.

  10. Moonbat Boy says:

    It must be so easy to cut and paste that same comment time after time

    “Duh, George Bush, duh”

  11. Hal says:

    “Duh, George Bush, duh”

    Yes. He really does make it pretty easy – and effective – to do. Too bad he’s like a boat anchor around McCain’s neck going into November, eh?

  12. Lars says:

    It seems to suit the intellectually underprivileged to be incapable of separating dislike for GWB from an inevitable, and correct policy decision at the time.

    Saddam and his psychopathic sons and the rest of the Baath Party fascists would have been an ongoing catastrophe — with consequences of a magnitude of which we cannot imagine — but which would have inevitably increased the chaos in the region and probably the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, including potential covert weapons transfer.

  13. Hal says:

    It seems to suit the intellectually underprivileged to be incapable of separating dislike for GWB from an inevitable, and correct policy decision at the time.

    Yes, yes. It really is all because we hate Bush. It’s really just this inexplicable hatred of this man which has caused us to see the truly strategic blunder on a scale that boggles the imagination. it’s the irrational despising which has colored our understanding that there never was any WMD, never was any Al Qaeda connections, and more importantly, it was our inexplicable loathing of the boy moron that pulled the wool over our eyes and made us see the ethnic splits in the Iraqi society that would cause horrific bloodshed and civil war. And then to top it off, it was this insane contempt for our emperor that kept us seeing the spectacular failures of an occupation that wasn’t even planned and was carried out by neocon idealists who couldn’t even tie their shoes, much less reconstruct a government or rebuild an infrastructure.

    Thanks much for pointing all this out to us intellectually underprivileged. Truly, GWB is the hand of fate and did only what was inevitable and right.

  14. Anderson says:

    Saddam and his psychopathic sons and the rest of the Baath Party fascists would have been an ongoing catastrophe — with consequences of a magnitude of which we cannot imagine — but which would have inevitably increased the chaos in the region and probably the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, including potential covert weapons transfer.

    What an intellectually overprivileged fantasy.

    News flash, Lars: Saddam and his psycho (or, as I prefer to say, “evil”) kids had been running Iraq for many years before the invasion, and there was no reality-based reason to imagine that anything terribly different was going to happen.

    Twice, Saddam got frisky – once with Iran, leading to a bloody stalemate, and once with Kuwait, where he got his ass handed to him on a platter. You can count Osirak as a third, if you like, with the same kind of result.

    Everything we’ve learned about the regime since its fall, which gave us access to all sorts of archives and to insiders who would’ve been too scared to speak while Saddam was in power, indicates that Saddam was a caged tiger, and knew it.

    But by all means, enjoy your fantasies, as they doubtless make the American and Iraqi deaths since “Mission Accomplished” seem well worth the cost. If I’d supported this foolish war, I’d feel those deaths on my conscience, too.

  15. Lars says:

    Saddam was a caged tiger, and knew it.

    Yes, and it was about to go belly up. Did you expect policing of the no-fly zones forever? Do you think lifting sanctions would have made no difference to arms escalation and restart of weapons programs?

    Does ‘AQ Khan’ not mean anything to you?

    No putative cooperation between Al-Qaeda and the Saddam regime . . .? Read the 9/11 Report.

    I hope the US stays there for many years. It’s perfectly positioned to influence events in Syria and Iran and the region as a whole — and that was a covert reason for the invasion for sure.

    Q: What do these flourishing democracies and world-leading economies have in common: Germany, Japan, South Korea?
    A: Long-term American bases.

    It was a brave and far-sighted decision to invade Iraq and one for which the US should be congratulated and which will be of great influence on the values cherished by the liberal left.

    Whatever happened to ‘fighting fascism’, a cornerstone of traditional leftist values? The left has been taken over by anti-war wonks with touchy feely values and no long-term analytical skills.