To listen to the critics, you would think that the Iraq war was the biggest blunder in U.S. history and George W. Bush the worst president ever. Comparisons with Vietnam have already become a cliché, but that’s not going far enough for the respected Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. In a November 2005 article in The Forward, he called the invasion of Iraq “the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them.” Most Americans are more judicious, but polls indicate that a majority doesn’t trust Bush’s handling of Iraq and now thinks the invasion was a mistake. Although only a minority favors an immediate pullout, ever more Americans seem to agree with Democratic chairman Howard Dean, who said on December 5 that “the idea that we’re going to win the war in Iraq is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.”
As we mark the war’s third anniversary, it is worth asking whether such sentiments are justified or whether they represent an emotional overreaction to the sorts of temporary setbacks that occur in every major conflict. The answer is, of course, unknowable until we see how the war turns out. It won’t be clear for years whether Iraq becomes a stable democracy or whether, as critics expect, it becomes mired in despotism or internecine conflict. It is entirely possible that the naysayers will be proven right and the invasion will go down as a fiasco. This might be a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, for the more opposition there is on the home front, the less chance there is for our troops to prevail.
But while it is too early to reach definitive judgments, it is not too early to take a dispassionate look at the record so far. If we avoid both the hyperbole of the Administration’s more perfervid critics and the inflexible defensiveness of its more passionate champions, we can see that although the Administration has made plenty of mistakes, their consequences are not irredeemably calamitous. To his credit, President Bush has not made the most critical mistake of all: He has not lost his nerve in difficult times, as have so many Democrats who initially supported the invasion. Thanks to the President’s fortitude, the Iraqi people’s resilience and, above all, the skill and bravery of Coalition armed forces, victory is still the most likely outcome. But due at least in part to Administration missteps, that victory will be a good deal harder to achieve than it needed to be.
The most impassioned criticism of the war focuses on the casus belli. The case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was discredited in the eyes of many when U.S. troops did not find chemical or biological weapons stockpiles or evidence of an active nuclear weapons program, all of which Administration officials claimed would be present. While a major setback, the absence of WMD stockpiles hardly invalidates the rationale for action. Nor does it indicate that the architects of the invasion were guilty of duplicity, as claimed by numerous Democrats who allege that we were “lied into war.” Why would President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair be so foolish as to involve their nations in a conflict if they knew its rationale would be exposed as a fraud? And why, if they deliberately lied about the WMD, would they not lie again about “finding” such weapons?
There is no doubt that Administration principals believed that weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq. So, for that matter, did Saddam’s generals. No evidence substantiates the common allegation that the WMD threat was hyped or distorted to fit ideological predispositions. Two bipartisan panels, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Robb-Silberman Commission, looked at prewar intelligence and found not a single instance of an intelligence analyst being pressured to change any findings about Iraq. There was no need for such pressure given the “slam dunk” certitude—George Tenet’s choice of words—of the U.S. intelligence community about the threat posed by Iraq, a judgment shared by allied intelligence services, including those of countries that opposed the invasion such as France and Germany.
This level of consensus should be no surprise, given that the Bush Administration’s warnings about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were almost identical to the Clinton Administration’s. It was not George W. Bush who said:
The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.
It was Bill Clinton in 1998, announcing his Desert Fox air strikes on Iraq. Even Ted Kennedy, of all people, said in 2002: “We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.”
We had also known for many years that, as UN Security Council Resolution 1441 proclaimed, Saddam was in “material breach” of his disarmament obligations under numerous UN resolutions. Resolution 1441, passed unanimously on November 8, 2002, gave Iraq a “final opportunity to comply”, but Saddam did not do so. Hans Blix, head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), told the Security Council on January 27, 2003 that “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance—not even today—of the disarmament, which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace.” On May 30, 2003, Blix added that “little progress was made in the solution of outstanding issues during the time of UNMOVIC operations in Iraq.” There is little reason to think that Saddam would have ended what Blix called his “game of hide and seek” even if the United States and United Kingdom had waited a few more months before going to war, as so many (including Blix) urged them to do.
While Saddam almost certainly did get rid of his WMD stockpiles prior to the invasion, that does not mean he no longer posed a threat or had finally decided to come clean. Charles Duelfer, head of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, later concluded that Iraq had circumvented UN sanctions “by illicitly importing components for use in its missile programs.” Duelfer’s predecessor, David Kay, testified that Iraq had also maintained “a clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses within the Iraqi Intelligence Service that contained equipment suitable for research in the production of chemical and biological weapons.” Both Duelfer and Kay concluded that Saddam planned to restart full-scale production of WMD and attendant delivery systems once the heat was off.
This was no idle hope on Saddam’s part considering that, prior to 9/11, the sanctions regime was rapidly falling apart. We now know that the situation was far worse than feared. Saddam had managed to embezzle in excess of $10 billion from the UN Oil-for-Food program. Even more money would have flowed into his coffers following the steep run-up in oil prices in 2004-05. That windfall could have paid for WMD as easily as for gaudy palaces—and it no doubt would have if not for the Anglo-American invasion of March 2003.
Of course, we know the heavy costs of that action, but we can only speculate about the costs of inaction. Saddam’s record over more than two decades is not reassuring: He supported terrorists (he gave $25,000 bonuses to families of suicide bombers who murdered Israelis); he used WMD (he employed mustard and nerve gas against both Iraqi Kurds and Iranians); he invaded his neighbors (Iran and Kuwait); and he tortured and murdered on a massive scale (he killed at least 300,000 Iraqis, and many more perished in the two wars he started). We do not have to assume a direct operational link between the Ba’athists and al-Qaeda—although there is considerable evidence that Iraq trained thousands of foreign terrorists—to posit that Saddam presented an intolerable risk to the United States and its allies in a vital region of the world. The choice confronting President Bush was essentially the same one that confronted Western leaders dealing with the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s: a choice not between peace and war, but between war now or a bigger war later. The notion that there was a benign or even tolerable status quo that could have been preserved at low cost is simply an illusion.
The case for war was strengthened by President Bush’s hope—not an unreasonable one, as events have shown—that deposing Saddam could change the poisonous dynamics of the Middle East and begin to transform the region for the better. Spreading democracy, reducing ideological support for terrorism and redressing rampant human-rights abuses were not the primary reasons for the invasion (the WMD threat really was the key factor). But they were important second- and third-order considerations, and not, as many critics now claim, simply post hoc rationalizations.
Critics are on firmer ground when they protest not the decision to topple Saddam but the way in which it was implemented. The Defense Department and Central Command gambled that a relatively small and mobile force of about 125,000 soldiers would be more useful than sending half a million or more troops in a replay of Desert Storm. This was not, on its face, an unreasonable judgment. A smaller force could preserve the element of surprise, move fast, avoid the appearance of an imperial occupation and perhaps avert some of the problems associated with a protracted slugfest, such as attacks on Israel or the destruction of oil fields. The initial three-week offensive, which began on March 20, 2003 and culminated in the fall of Baghdad on April 9, fulfilled the wildest hopes of Administration strategists.
The problem is what came next. The paucity of foreign troops—they were far less numerous on a per capita basis than in most successful occupations, ranging from Germany in 1945 to Kosovo in 1999—made it almost impossible to secure the country. U.S. planners had wrongly assumed that most of Iraq’s governmental infrastructure would remain intact following the removal of Saddam and his cronies. They also hoped that American allies would contribute large numbers of peacekeepers.
Neither assumption proved correct. Instead there was a complete collapse of law and order that was beyond the ability of 150,000 American and 25,000 allied troops to handle. Ba’athists took advantage of the chaos to sneak out of Baghdad and seek refuge in the Sunni Triangle to the west and north. The United States paid a heavy price for Turkey’s refusal (a consequence, in part, of inept U.S. diplomacy) to allow the 4th Infantry Division to enter Iraq from the north, where it might have closed off escape routes. But even more harmful was the failure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Central Command chief General Tommy Franks and their top subordinates to focus on the problems posed by escaping Ba’athists. Even without a conventional northern front, they might have moved forces quickly beyond Baghdad to subdue the Sunni Triangle. Instead they allowed this region to fester for weeks virtually undisturbed, while follow-on forces heading for Iraq were ordered to turn around and go home. This was indicative of a startling lack of realistic post-invasion planning. It was not quite the case that Centcom made no preparations for Phase IV (the “post-conflict” phase), but it is true that military and civilian planners focused on contingencies that did not occur (e.g., refugee flows and food shortages), while neglecting the problems that did arise due to regime collapse.
Ever since the spring of 2003, political and bureaucratic factions within and outside the Administration have been blaming each other for these oversights. Suffice it to say there is plenty of blame to go around, especially at the Defense Department and White House, but it is risible to blame all the errors on a handful of second- and third-tier officials dubbed “neocons”—principally Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and the Vice President’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (all of whom have since left the Administration). A full account of their role remains to be written, but my impression, based on background conversations with some of the participants, is that these “neocons” pressed for more attention to be paid to the postwar situation than some of their colleagues in government were willing to give. They were not, however, in the driver’s seat. The crucial day-to-day decisions were made mainly by Rumsfeld and Franks, neither one remotely a neocon. Both had displayed indifference verging on hostility for the idea of nation-building. Their focus was on pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq as fast as possible after the fall of Baghdad, not on sticking around to midwife a democratic transformation.
President Bush himself must bear ultimate responsibility for the neglect of post-invasion planning, which led the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to be set up just two months prior to the invasion. ORHA’s head, retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, was given neither the authority nor the resources needed to run a country of 26 million people. His successor, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was no better prepared. Soldiers joked that CPA’s initials stood for “Can’t Provide Anything.” The situation was aggravated by interagency bickering between the State and Defense Departments and between Bremer and the top military commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
An insurgency probably would have broken out no matter what the Coalition did. Evidence has emerged that an office of Saddam’s intelligence service, M-14, the Directorate of Special Operations, had planned well in advance to wage guerrilla warfare against the occupiers. Cash and weapons had been strategically stashed around the country, and Islamist radicals, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later emerged as head of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, had been invited into Iraq before Coalition forces arrived. But the Coalition’s lack of direction and resources in the weeks after Baghdad’s fall made the worst of a bad situation. Two of Bremer’s most important early decisions—to purge all Ba’athists from the government and to dissolve the Iraqi army—have been especially blamed for fueling the insurgency.
These criticisms are not wrong, but they must be put into context. Both decisions involved difficult tradeoffs. Booting out the Ba’athists risked alienating the Sunni minority and depriving the government of critical talent, but leaving them in place would have alienated Shi’a and Kurds who form 80 percent of the population. It was, on balance, probably the right move to make. The decision to dissolve Saddam’s army and security forces also had its merits (it made the re-establishment of dictatorship less likely) but its costs were higher—namely, setting loose a large number of malcontents with military training. Bremer has argued that he had no choice, since the mostly Shi’a conscripts had simply left their barracks and gone home—there was not much army left. True, but by not making more of an effort to reconstitute the military (as many U.S. officers were trying to do) or, more importantly, to build a new internal security force in its place (initial efforts focused on creating a small conventional military designed to fight other armies, not guerrillas), Bremer’s decisions contributed to the creation of a dangerous security vacuum.
It did not help that Bremer decided to run the government as a veritable viceroy, advised only by the ineffectual Iraqi Governing Council. Rumsfeld and his ideological allies had argued early on for installing an interim administration led by Iraqi exiles. They had been blocked by State Department and CIA officials who argued that the exiles lacked legitimacy. These concerns sounded reasonable at the time (which is why Bush endorsed them), but it turned out that Bremer had even less legitimacy than any Iraqi exile. After a frustrating year, Bremer wound up being replaced by an exile anyway: Iyad Allawi could just as easily have been appointed prime minister in 2003 as in 2004.
All of these problems were compounded by a lack of reconstruction assistance. Only $2.5 billion had been budgeted initially to rebuild Iraq, an amount that proved grossly inadequate given the dilapidated condition in which Saddam’s misrule and a decade of sanctions had left the country. (Administration officials later claimed that they had no idea in advance how run-down everything was, but private experts had foreseen the need for at least $25-100 billion in reconstruction aid.) In November 2003 Congress voted $18.4 billion in further aid for Afghanistan and Iraq, but due to byzantine contracting requirements and a deteriorating security situation, the money was slow to be spent. By December 2004, going on two years after the invasion, just $2 billion had reached Iraq—and much of that went for security and overhead costs incurred by American contractors. In the meantime, military commanders tasked with rebuilding Iraq had to make do with cash seized from Saddam’s vaults. The slow pace of reconstruction added further fuel to the fires of discontent.
A final element of American mismanagement aggravated the situation in 2003: The military’s heavy-handed strategy in the Sunni Triangle. Starting in early June 2003, U.S. Army units launched major sweeps designed to capture Saddam and to corral insurgents and their sympathizers. With codenames such as Peninsula Strike, Desert Scorpion and Iron Hammer, these operations involved thousands of troops backed up by tanks, artillery and warplanes. While these efforts reaped some valuable intelligence and apprehended some guerrillas, they also deeply alienated Iraqis who did not appreciate foreign troops barging into their houses pointing guns at them. And these operations were not ultimately successful because the Coalition lacked the manpower to garrison areas wrested from insurgent control. As soon as the Americans pulled out, the guerrillas moved back in. This counterproductive strategy was symptomatic of the lack of training provided to U.S. units in such areas as peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and nation-building, which neither Rumsfeld nor most senior military commanders were ever particularly interested in.
Taken together, these mistakes resulted in a critical loss of momentum in the first year following the liberation of Baghdad. The insurgents—a mixture of Ba’athi “dead enders”, jihadist fanatics and common criminals—settled in for a punishing terrorist campaign that exacted a growing toll. And no one in a position of authority saw it coming. An independent review panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger concluded, “In Iraq there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations.”
The Bush Administration compounded its initial mistakes amid a growing insurgency with two disasters in 2004: Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, which occurred between October and December 2003 and were revealed in April 2004, are by now notorious and do not need to be recited here. The key point is that no evidence has been uncovered that the sadistic misconduct of a small number of guards on the night shift was ordered by senior officials. But even if there was no high-level complicity, there was plenty of high-level neglect.
Even more damaging, in many ways, than the fall of American prestige caused by the Abu Ghraib scandal was the fall of Fallujah, which occurred at roughly the same time. On March 31, 2004, four American security contractors were ambushed and killed in this western Iraqi city and their corpses strung up and disfigured. This ghastly spectacle, broadcast worldwide, led Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, Franks’ successor at Centcom, to order the local Marine garrison to invade Fallujah and regain control. The Marines preferred to stick with their patient strategy of slowly trying to win over local support, but, once given an order, they saluted and moved out.
Several days of difficult fighting ensued. On April 9, with the city 48-72 hours from being secured, the Marines were astonished to be told that their offensive had been called off. Bremer and Abizaid, alarmed by inflammatory press coverage, feared that if the assault continued, support for the United States would crumble throughout Iraq at a time when Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia was also rising up against Coalition forces. According to No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah, a new book by Bing West, Bush rubber-stamped the decision to call off the attack without being told that the Marine commanders on the ground disagreed. This impetuous decision-making at a critical juncture allowed Fallujah to fall again into enemy hands and necessitated a second, more difficult invasion in November 2004 that cost more than seventy American lives.
However tragic and avoidable, the second assault on Fallujah may well be seen in retrospect as a turning point in the war. Two months later, on January 30, 2005, Iraqis participated in their first free national election. More than 8.5 million voters, 58 percent of the electorate, turned out notwithstanding insurgent bombs and bullets. Most Sunnis boycotted the January balloting, but many voted in the constitutional referendum on October 15, bringing total turnout to 9.8 million. (The constitution passed with 79 percent support despite overwhelming opposition in Sunni areas.) Even more Sunnis turned out on December 15 to elect representatives to a full term in parliament. In all, 10.9 million Iraqis, 70 percent of those registered, voted that day amid minimal violence. Considering the absence of genuinely free elections in the history of Iraq or any other Arab state, this was a monumental achievement. “It was”, said the Washington Post, “easily the most democratic poll in the history of the Arab Middle East.”
Despite these achievements, doomsayers fret about fissiparous tendencies pulling Iraq into constituent Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parts. That may yet happen—and if it were to happen peacefully (a big “if”) it would not be the end of the world. But the success of these elections at least raises the possibility that Iraqis will find a way to work out their differences and coexist under an inclusive, if weak, central government. The greatest cause for optimism has to be the staunch pro-democracy position of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shi’i cleric in Iraq, who has given every indication that he does not want to set up an Iranian-style theocracy. Iraq is not likely to become a secular democracy; Muslim mores will certainly play a bigger role in issues such as women’s rights, for example, than Westerners would prefer. But Iraq can certainly become—it is already becoming—a place where governments are chosen by the people and space exists for political dissent. Before 2003 there was not a single independent media outlet in Iraq. Now, according to the Brookings Iraq Index, there are 44 commercial television stations, 72 radio stations, more than 100 newspapers and dozens of competing political parties. Their editorial stances represent every shade of opinion from liberal to Islamist to communist—views that are also espoused by dozens of competing political parties.
Iraq has also made considerable economic progress. For all the insurgents’ attempts to sabotage the economy, Brookings reports that per capita income has doubled since 2003 and is now 30 percent higher than before the war. Thanks primarily to the increase in oil prices, the Iraqi economy is projected to grow at a whopping 16.8 percent this year. A December poll conducted by ABC News, Time magazine, the BBC and other Western media organizations found that 70 percent of Iraqis rate their own economic situation positively, and consumer goods are sweeping the country. In early 2004, 6 percent of Iraqi households had cell phones; now it’s 62 percent. Ownership of satellite dishes has nearly tripled, and many more families now own air conditioners (58 percent, up from 44 percent), cars, washing machines and kitchen appliances.
Obviously, not everything is rosy in a country recovering from decades of brutal dictatorship and still plagued by a vicious terrorist campaign. The unemployment rate is down but remains high (estimated at 25-40 percent), electricity generation is only now returning to prewar levels, and oil production remains below peak prewar levels. Worst of all, of course, is the continuing violence. There was an average of ninety insurgent attacks a day in November 2005 (most successful), up from 77 per day in November 2004 and just 32 per day in November 2003. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of a few dozen bombs in a country the size of California, especially when most of them are confined to just four of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The Western media poll cited earlier found that, despite insurgent attacks, “more than six in 10 Iraqis feel very safe in their own neighborhoods, up sharply from just 40 percent in a poll in June 2004. And 61 percent say local security is good—up from 49 percent in the first ABC News poll in Iraq in February 2004.”
This growing sense of safety can be attributed to the increasing effectiveness of Iraqi security forces. The training of Iraqi troops belatedly became a top U.S. priority in 2004 when it was turned over to Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. Under Petraeus and his successor, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the number and, more importantly, the capability of Iraqi troops has increased dramatically. Since the January 30, 2005 election, not a single Iraqi unit has crumbled in battle, and recruiting continues to run strong despite the terrible casualties these volunteers have taken. Their increasing success is evident on Route Irish leading from Baghdad International Airport. Once the most dangerous road in Iraq, it is now one of the safest due to the increased presence of Iraqi troops. Similar success is evident in other places taken over by Iraqi forces, such as Baghdad’s Haifa Street, once an insurgent stronghold.
If President Bush resists pressure to prematurely reduce U.S. troop numbers (pressure that is coming, not least, from the overstretched U.S. armed forces), the growing number of Iraqi troops could work alongside their American counterparts to increase the overall level of security. If, however, Bush draws down too soon, the security situation will remain perilous at best. Although there is growing political pressure at home for a drawdown, Bush still has enough leeway to do what he thinks is best as long as his party continues to control at least one house of Congress, which would stymie Democratic attempts to defund this war as they defunded the Vietnam War.
Withdrawing too many U.S. troops too fast is dangerous because, for all their recent improvements, most Iraqi security forces remain incapable of operating entirely on their own. The Iraqi Interior and Defense Ministries have been wracked by charges of corruption, incompetence and brutality. The Iraqi government has a long way to go before it can do without American assistance in such critical areas as logistics, intelligence, communications and air support.
But if Iraqi government forces remain weak, so do their enemies. The Iraqi insurgents are not the Viet Cong or the Afghan mujaheddin. They are split into competing groups (foreign and domestic, jihadi and Ba’athi), lack central coordination, and are incapable of mounting any kind of large-scale assault. There is no rebel leader with the legitimacy of a Ho Chi Minh or an Ahmed Shah Massoud. The most prominent insurgent, Zarqawi, is a Jordanian who is despised by most Iraqis. The insurgent base of support is limited to at most 20 percent of the population, and Sunnis increasingly recognize that they can accomplish more with ballots than with bombs. A few thousand dedicated killers with utter disregard for the lives of innocent people can continue to cause trouble indefinitely, but they are unlikely to prevail. Countries as diverse as Israel, Colombia and Sri Lanka have shown that it is possible for democracy to flourish even amid high levels of political violence.
If Iraq does become more stable and democratic, it will serve as a beacon of hope in the Middle East. Even now, despite the considerable difficulties of the post-Saddam era, one can see positive ripples emanating from the war. Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2006” ratings for the Middle East “represent the region’s best performance in the history of the survey.” Countries that have seen “modest but notable increases in political rights and civil liberties” include Lebanon, which saw the departure of Syrian troops followed by competitive elections; Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, which held elections fairer than those in the past; and Kuwait, which extended suffrage to women. Even Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive places on earth, made some progress by holding municipal elections and granting greater academic and media freedom. To this list of salutary developments one should add Muammar Qaddafi’s late 2003 decision to abandon Libya’s WMD programs.
It is of course possible to point to indigenous factors in each case of progress, but the liberation of Iraq has clearly changed the region’s dynamic. Listen to two prominent Middle Easterners who opposed the U.S. invasion. The Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt told David Ignatius of the Washington Post in February 2005,
It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world….The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.
More recently, the Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim told Ignatius’ colleague, Jim Hoagland, that those in the Middle East “who believe in democracy and civil society are finally actors, even though we still face big obstacles.” The invasion of Iraq, he continued,
has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon’s 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us. Look, neither Napoleon nor President Bush could impregnate the region with political change. But they were able to be midwives.
The views of Jumblatt and Ibrahim form an eloquent counterpoint to the widespread expectation among opponents of the war that it would lead to an “explosion” of anti-American rage on the “Arab street.” There has been an increase in anti-Americanism, true; but, according to polls, it is starting to abate. Yes, terrorist recruits continue to flock into Iraq—the U.S. failure to seal off the 375-mile border with Syria has been a major continuing problem—but it wasn’t as if al-Qaeda suffered from a shortage of volunteers before March 2003. If jihadis were not trying to kill Americans in Iraq, they would be trying to kill them elsewhere—probably in Afghanistan, possibly in the United States. Yes, there have been some terrorist attacks linked to Iraq, such as the Madrid and London bombings, but plenty of countries that did not support the invasion, such as Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia, have also been targeted. Jihadis always have some excuse for their excesses. Before the United States entered Iraq, a common excuse was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops are no longer needed to protect the Saudi kingdom from Iraqi invasion. But that hasn’t curbed jihadi attacks, any more than the eventual U.S. pullout from Iraq will.
The good news is that the wanton depravities of the violent Islamists, most of whose victims are fellow Muslims, are causing a backlash in the Muslim world. According to a July 2005 Pew Global Attitudes Project report, the percentage of those saying that “violence against civilian targets is sometimes or often justified” has dropped by big margins in Lebanon (-34 points) and Indonesia (-12) since 2002, and in Pakistan (-16) and Morocco (-27) since 2004. And approval ratings for Osama bin Laden have slid since 2003 in Indonesia (-23 points), Morocco (-23), Turkey (-8) and Lebanon (-12). The Arab street is rising in outrage, all right—but it is outrage as much or more directed against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as it is against George W. Bush. After Zarqawi’s henchmen murdered 59 people in three Jordanian hotels this past November, more than 200,000 people turned out in the streets of Amman in protest. Even Zarqawi’s own clan disowned him. The anti-American “blowback” widely predicted by opponents of the invasion of Iraq may yet materialize, but so far we’ve seen as much or more anti-terrorist blowback.
The anti-terrorist trend among Muslims will get stronger if the United States stays resolute in Iraq. Conversely, if we exit prematurely, the terrorists will be emboldened to commit ever greater depravities, leading to the loss of more American lives. If the past two decades teach anything, it is that terrorist groups feed off U.S. defeats ( Beirut and Somalia), not off our victories (Afghanistan). Critics are right that Iraq was not the top breeding ground of terrorism before 2003, but it has become the central front in the war on terror today—a war that we cannot afford to lose.
Iraq in Perpective
Opponents of the Administration have lost sight of the stakes in Iraq by concentrating on the losses suffered by U.S. armed forces and on the missteps made by their commanders. Of course, no one, least of all the war’s supporters, can be happy about the fact that the conflict has cost the U.S. Treasury more than $250 billion and cost the lives of more than 2,200 Americans (and more than 16,400 wounded) as of this writing. Critics are right that some of these losses might have been averted by wiser leadership.
But if the Iraq war has been marred by scandalous miscalculations, that does not distinguish it from any other war in U.S. history. Think of the failed invasion of Canada and the loss of New York, Philadelphia and Charlestown in the Revolutionary War; another failed invasion of Canada and the burning of the White House in the War of 1812; the massacre at Little Big Horn in the Indian Wars; the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fall of the Philippines, the mauling of American troops at Kasserine Pass, in Operation Market Garden, at the Anzio beachhead and in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II; and the horrific retreat from the Chosin Reservoir followed by two years of bloody stalemate in the Korean War. All were setbacks of far greater magnitude than anything that has occurred in Iraq, yet none precluded ultimate victory.
Even the most successful operations in wars past usually resulted in far greater losses than those suffered in Iraq. Some 5,400 Allied servicemen died in about 18 hours on D-Day—more than twice as many as have perished in three years of combat in Iraq. During World War II the United States lost an average of 300 soldiers a day. In Iraq, we are losing an average of two soldiers a day, a pace that would require another 76 years for U.S. deaths in Iraq to match those in Vietnam.
Of course, no statistic can assuage the suffering of the friends and family of those killed or maimed, and even one death or disfigurement is too many. But given the incessant harping of the news media and the antiwar movement on casualties, it is not callous to note that losses in this war have been lower than in any other major conflict in U.S. history with the sole exception of the 1991 Gulf War, which set casualty expectations unrealistically low. The Gulf War also set financial expectations too low since we financed most of its cost by dunning allies. Due to a lack of international support (again, partly the result of the Administration’s ham-fisted diplomacy), we have not been so lucky this time around. But while war spending of $83.3 billion a year ($250 billion over three years) is a vast and growing sum, in an $11.7 trillion economy it represents just 0.7 percent of gross domestic product. Even if we add in the rest of the defense budget, total spending on the military is still just 4.5 percent of GDP. We spent almost 40 percent of GDP to win World War II and more than 7 percent a year over several decades to win the Cold War.
None of this is meant to excuse the Bush Administration’s mistakes or to denigrate the heroic sacrifices of American servicemen and women. But if, decades from now, Iraq emerges as a stable democracy and the Middle East becomes a better place, future historians may well marvel at how cheaply and skillfully this transformation was achieved. It’s good that we as a nation are hard on ourselves, that we expect a lot from our leaders and have little patience for incompetence. It’s not so good that we sometimes set our expectations unrealistically high. If we took our own history more seriously, we might learn to temper our expectations with humility and to find a greater capacity for patience. We surely need more of both.