Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Lessons of Iraq

Iraq Invasion

Wednesday marks the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq.

As readers here know, there's little consensus among pundits and political scientists on the nature of military and political success in the conflict, or on the war's long-term significance for the international system.

Jules Crittenden addresses these issues in
a penetrating new essay at the Weekly Standard. Crittenden was embedded with A Company of the 4/64 Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division during the march-up to Baghdad during the initial invasion. Here's his take on the big picture:

We're five years into the war in Iraq now. Nearly 4,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. Thousands more Americans and Iraqis have seen their lives shattered in what became the premier killing zone of a global war. But death and combat no longer make the front pages; the drama has been bled out of it, and the war has taken a back seat in the presidential campaign. Rather than maturing in time of war, the American people seem eager to put it out of mind.

After 1989, we were encouraged to believe that war was history. This illusion made the shock of 9/11 all the worse. Even then some people wanted to believe it was an aberration, something we had brought on ourselves and could fix with kind words and deeds. The ease of the Taliban's ouster then created the false impression that we had managed to reinvent war in a more palatable form.

In fact, all we've managed to do as a nation over six-and-a-half years of war is confuse ourselves. This is not a simple war to understand, and it has been going on for decades. It has expressed itself with everything from low-grade terrorism to conventional war to nuclear threats, across multiple continents, and with many, seemingly unconnected, adversaries. Just the part of it we call the Iraq war has involved many different, and not always distinct, adversaries in numerous, overlapping conflicts. Faced with this kind of complexity, it isn't so surprising that vague messages of "hope" and "change" resonate with the American public, and politicians vie for the right to own those terms.

The shallowness of the debate suggests our nation is in danger of failing the test of our time. The abstract circumstances of cause and consequence in this war have fostered an avoidance of reality in some quarters--and at some of the highest levels of our leadership, often quite nakedly for purposes of political gain. Would-be leaders would rather play to emotions than make the hard calculations that adulthood forces on us.

Iraq has become the central battlefield in the 21st century's Islamic war, and may have been destined to be, with or without us. Lying geographically, ideologically, and culturally athwart the Middle East, rich in resources and boiling with rage long before we got there, it is the place where the war will either be settled or truly begun. It is a fitting role for the cradle of civilization to host a war in which the very progress of civilization is being challenged.

While there were terrible errors made in going to war in Iraq, the decision to go to war was not one of them.

Saddam Hussein convinced the world he had active weapons programs. The evidence now suggests he didn't, but how active his programs were, ultimately, is irrelevant. He had demonstrated his desire to dominate the region. Our European allies were eager to do business with him despite their own intelligence reports. Absent any containment, there was potential for more terrible and far-reaching wars. It was inevitable that Iraq would undergo a post-Saddam power struggle with massive ethnic conflict and with interference by Iran and Syria. The question was, and remains, how much influence we would wield in that event.

Five years on, the threat Saddam Hussein posed to regional stability--global stability, if you consider the resources he sought to control--has been neutralized....

Those Americans who have sneered at these fits and starts of democracy are experiencing their own domestic political frustrations. Democrats are demanding more political cohesion from Iraq and Pakistan than they've been able to manage themselves. As Congress presses for disengagement with no practicable plan, we learn--thanks to the candor of a departing foreign policy adviser--that the leading Democratic candidate has no plan whatsoever for his campaign's central plank of withdrawal from Iraq.

The errors committed in this war have contributed greatly to American frustrations. There was a failure to recognize the extent of the challenge ahead, even as ambitious plans were being laid starting in late 2001. The Bush administration could have had a blank check and recruits lined up around the block, but instead insisted on taking us into war with a post-Cold War military that is only belatedly being built up. The administration failed to seize control of Iraq with sufficient urgency and, when a complex insurgency was well underway, failed to move with sufficient skill to quell it until late in the day. The greater failure was to not adequately communicate the mission to Americans and to the world.

All wars go through evolutions, and it is unrealistic to expect no missteps. In this case, however, they are cited most frequently not as arguments to improve the war effort, but as excuses for abandonment. The Bush administration has made good at last with a counterinsurgency strategy that has hobbled Al Qaeda in Iraq and has the Shiite militias in a box. Iraqi military capabilities are improving, and the next president appears likely to inherit a somewhat pacified, reconciled Iraq; an enhanced American position of influence in the Middle East; opposing terrorist organizations that are sharply compromised; and a string of nascent democracies. At considerable cost of American blood and treasure, the United States is now in a position of marked if precarious influence in the most dangerous part of the world. The new president will have to consider how much of that he or she wants to throw away or build upon.

The antiwar camp and their candidates hold a childish hope that our problems will just go away if we withdraw. They argue that Iraq was an artificial cause, that our presence fuels violence and our departure will end it, that Iran can be a helpful partner in this process, and that al Qaeda can be fought from afar. They desire nothing but a return to the innocence we enjoyed before September 11, 2001, ignoring the fact that our enemies had been emboldened by decades of American demurring, disengagement, and half measures.

The American people have been allowed to believe that getting out of Vietnam was the best thing we did there, and that there was no penalty for cutting our losses. It should not be surprising that so many believe the same of Iraq. Looking past the immediate victims of that historic abandonment, the Soviet Union was emboldened by our show of weakness, invading Afghanistan and triggering a fateful string of events. Iran, seized by Islamic zealots, staged the 1979 hostage crisis to kick off three decades of support for terrorism and a bid for regional domination. In both cases, the belligerents knew we would do nothing about it. Figures like Osama bin Laden, among others, noted this void, and created the circumstances we are currently compelled to address.

The United States has commitments to Iraq and the larger region and a pressing interest in the defense of free and open societies. If we avoid our responsibilities we simply plant the seeds of further conflict. The pressing question of the 2008 presidential campaign is whether the part of this global war that began five years ago will be prosecuted to a satisfactory conclusion, or whether the effort to end the Iraq war will be marked by a different kind of waffling, whining noise than that one I heard at dawn five years ago, followed by more devastating explosions.

This is perhaps the best recent essay I've read on the entire cultural, miltary, and political significance of the war, and I've read a lot.

There's not much more I can add except to reinforce the notion that this is the conflict of our time, and that for all the cost and sacrifice, also on the line is America's reputation as the world's leading power.

War opponents will continue to berate and demonize the war. Today the Bush administration is vilified for its foreign policy failures in 2003 through 2006, but very few are willing to concede the huge foreign policy learning that the adminstration undertook to set a new course toward victory. We are not done, as General David Petraeus said this week, but the level of violence in Iraq over the last year has dropped so dramatically that the conflict has all but disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers.

The notion of Iraq as FUBAR among implacable antiwar forces - as well as mainstream journalists - will be difficult to dislodge.

The truth, of course, is that we're winning in Iraq, and while considerable debate over the strength of al Qaeda or other anti-democratic groups will continue, the fact remains that we can simply either recognize the phenomenal progress we've made - and commit American resources and will to seeing the job through - or we can succumb to a cost-sensitivity that will set back American foreign interests more disastrously than at any time since Vietnam - an earlier, regrettable retreat from war that left the world's correlation of forces dangerously advantageous to the evil designs of Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.

We cannot afford to do the same today.

Crittenden's right: Iraq is now the world's ground zero in the battle against 21st century Islamic war. There's no retreat from the struggle, no matter the political dynamics at home. Our enemies won't rest until they've achieved their goal of the complete and utter destruction of the United States, by any means necessary.

That's a lesson that can never be forgotten this campaign season.

Photo Credit: Jules Crittenden


Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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