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.
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