Sullivan: Defending the War

Andrew Sullivan, writing in something called “The Stranger,” issues a fairly lengthy mea culpa for several of the errors of judgment leading up to and in the immediate aftermath the Iraq War. He then explains why, even without the fabled WMD, he thinks the war was and remains worth it.

The War You’ve Got

I’m not going to give you the lame answer: We’re already in so deep we cannot just abandon Iraq now. That’s a fool’s argument. So here’s my shot at a better one. The reality of 9/11 was a terrifying one. We faced a fanatical enemy determined to kill any civilization or people who objected to the restoration of a medieval, theocratic dictatorship in the Middle East (and, eventually, as with all such ideologies, elsewhere). We’d ignored or appeased them for years. And then they killed over 3,000 innocents in the heart of the United States. If they had had the means, they would have killed 300,000. If they get the means in the future, they will.

What do you do? In my view, you fight back, remove their base of operations, and kill as many of them as you possibly can. We did that in Afghanistan, a war that many on the anti-war left now pretend they supported. But leaving the matter at Afghanistan was a superficial solution. The fundamental cause of this new, totalitarian ideology–forged in the Egypt of the 1960s–was Arab autocracy and dictatorship. My view was, and is, that only democracy could allow these forces to exhaust themselves sufficiently to remove the underlying threat. I believed, and believe, that we owed it to the victims of 9/11 to craft a root-and-branch solution, not just a quick regime turnaround in a relative sideshow called Afghanistan.

Where better to build an opportunity for a more democratic future than in the cradle of civilization, Iraq? Two-thirds of the country was already protected by our no-fly zones; Saddam was a horrendous despot, whose removal could be justified on moral grounds alone; technically, we were still at war, since he had broken every one of the conditions for the 1991 cease-fire at the “end” of the first Gulf War.

I have already listed my reasons for grave disillusionment with the Bush administration’s subsequent conduct of the war. But it also behooves me to say this: Iraqis have freedoms today they haven’t had in decades; the January elections were arguably an earthquake in democratic governance that is still producing aftershocks in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, and even Iran. Although physical security is still dismally remote, there are many places in Iraq where reconstruction is beginning, where democratic norms are being instilled, where free people exchange ideas, where the kind of terror we in the West cannot really understand no longer exists.

Sully is right. Saddam’s defiance of the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire, especially with regards to WMD transparency, were sufficient grounds for war, especially given the repetitive escalation/de-escalation cycles we went through during the twelve years in between. Absent the WMD argument, especially the idea he might supply nukes to al Qaeda down the road, it’s highly unlikely that the country could have been persuaded to go to war. As I’ve noted before, Bush barely got majority support for the war even with the WMD argument. Indeed, I was very slow to come around to it myself.

Still, toppling Saddam’s regime and securing the ability to conduct unrestricted inspections was accomplished with relative ease–21 days of war and under 200 American fatalities. Continued arguments from the anti-war Left about WMD, let alone “it’s all about the oil” are silly if we’re talking about the rationale for remaining in Iraq. The two years and 1500 deaths since the ousting of Saddam have been about democratization and transformation of the Arab world.

That, frankly, is a project I would have rejected before 9/11 and maybe even in early 2003. I applauded candidate George W. Bush’s pledge to avoid “nation-building.” But 9/11 began my awakening to the new nature of Islamo-fascist terrorism. Unlike the Cold War era groups like the Red Brigades or Badar Meinhoff gang, or even anti-Israeli terrorists like Hamas, al Qaeda is not a target set but an ideology. Killing their leadership and destroying their training bases are necessary but not sufficient conditions for victory.

Transforming the Muslim Middle East into modern, open societies is the most obvious, but alas most difficult, way of rooting out terrorism. Ironically, that’s a position the Left would have been trying, likely to hoots of derision, to convince the non-Neocon Right of not so long ago. In terms of Iraq, it’s something that I was exceedingly skeptical of in terms of feasibility well into the war effort.

The project has, so far, been more successful than I would have predicted. While the toll in blood and treasure has been dear in human terms if not in historical ones (the American death toll in Iraq still amounts to less than the first hour of the Normandy invasion) the achievements Sully notes are quite tangible. The majority Shiites and long-oppressed Kurds are participating in democratic governance and the reluctant Sunnis are trying to catch up. A permanent constitution is being written with the input of all three factions with a successor government likely to be stood up in the fall.

We’re a long way from declaring this thing a success; indeed, it could still fail. But if Iraq’s transition to something approaching true democracy and societal openness comes off as planned, it’s hard to imagine historians looking back at this war decades hence and saying it wasn’t worth the price.

via e-mail tip from occasional OTB contributor Richard Gardner

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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.


  1. MDS says:

    Well put… both of you have summed it up nicely. The alternative of further appeasement would not look pretty… Not for the US, Europe, or the good people of the middle east who deserve a better life than what they’ve gotten for decades.

    What opponents do not get is that this isn’t a war against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re not trying to come into their nations like a bull in a china closet and disrupt as many lives as possible. We’re trying to eliminate the elements in those societies that have been striking out at the world for years, and to make the world as a whole safer. It starts by making Afghanistan and Iraq safer.

  2. Piper Got Paid says:

    Good comments, although I would add a couple things: First, Iraq never qualified as an exercise of “nationbuilding.” That term applies specifically to purely humanitarian regime changes (think Milosevic or Somalia) where there is not the remotest threat to US security by the deposed regime. There isn’t a soul on the planet who thought that we were going to change regimes in Iraq on purely humanitarian grounds, least of all Bill Clinton, whose Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 made regime change in Iraq the official policy of the US government. For Clinton and for Bush, the war to depose Saddam and Sons was never primarily about Iraqi human rights, but about US safety — in the short-term from WMD, and in the long-term, from rogue states.

    Second, I think that the Iraq story, in terms of success and failure, has already been largely written — it just depends on your interpretation of what the goals were. No amount of senseless, sore-loser Sunni violence is going to cause the 80% non-Sunni Iraqis to hand the reigns of power back to a Sunni dictator. It just won’t happen. So Iraq is a democracy, and that was Bush’s major ME-political goal of the invasion — the only thing that remains to be seen is what kind of democracy. Even if the doomgloom left is correct, and all the current Iraqi government officials are wrong (I wouldn’t bet those odds), and Iraq becomes Iran, Jr., does that make the war an abject failure? When the alternative was Saddam and Sons, I’m not so sure.

    What I can guarantee is what I could’ve guaranteed you before the war began. The left will find some way call the Iraq war the greatest failure in military history, and the right will call it the greatest success in military history. The truth will likely be in the middle.