What I got wrong about Iraq.

What I got wrong about Iraq.

What I got wrong about Iraq.

A wartime lexicon.
April 19 2004 2:04 PM

Second Thinking

What I got wrong about Iraq.

At least there's no question about the flavor of the week. It's a scoop of regime-change second-thoughts, with a dash of "who lost Iraq by gaining it?" Colin Powell, who has never been wise before any event (he was for letting Bosnia slide and didn't want even to move an aircraft carrier on the warning—which he didn't believe—that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait), always has Bob Woodward at his elbow when he wants to be wise afterwards. Richard Clarke has never been asked any questions about his insistence that the United States stay away from Rwanda. Many of those who were opposed to any military intervention now tell us that they always thought it should have been at least twice as big.

To give an example of the latter school: E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post has just instructed his readers that Fallujah and the Sunni triangle would more likely have been under control the first time around, except that we refused the offer of help from the Turks. Dionne, whose politics are an etiolated version of the Dorothy Day/Michael Harrington Catholic-pacifist school, is the soft-Left's William Safire in this thirst for Turkish power. At the time, I thought it was impressive that the United States refused Turkey's arrogant pre-condition, which was a demand that Turkish troops be allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan. Apart from the fact that there was and is no threat from that quarter, such a concession would have negated our "regime change" claims.

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Now we hear on all sides, including Lakhdar Brahimi of the United Nations, that de-Baathification was also a mistake. Can you imagine what the antiwar critics, and many Iraqis, would now be saying if the Baathists had been kept on? This point extends to Paul Bremer's decision to dissolve the Baathist armed forces. That could perhaps have been carried out with more tact, and in easier stages. But it was surely right to say that a) Iraq was the victim of a huge and parasitic military, which invaded externally and repressed internally; and b) that young Iraqi men need no longer waste years of their lives on nasty and stultifying conscription. Moreover, by making it impossible for any big-mouth brigadier or general to declare himself the savior of Iraq in a military coup, the United States also signaled that it would not wish to rule through military proxies (incidentally, this is yet another gross failure of any analogy to Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, and all the rest of it).

In parallel with this kind of retrospective brilliance, we continue to hear from those whose heroic job it is to keep on exposing the open secret. Fresh bulletins continue to appear from the faction that knows the awful truth: Saddam's Iraq was considered a threat by some people even before Osama Bin Laden became famous. I still recommend Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm as the best general volume here. Published well before the war and by a member of the Clinton NSC whose pre-Kuwait warnings had been overruled by the first Bush administration, it openly said that continuing coexistence with Saddam Hussein had become impossible and that the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, made it thinkable at last to persuade public opinion that this was so. More than any other presentation, this prepared the ground for the intervention. I remember it being rather openly on sale and being considered the argument that you had to beat.

Pollack rested more of his case than he now finds comfortable on the threat from Iraqi WMD. That these used to be a threat is no more to be denied than the cheerful fact that we can now be sure that they no longer are. (And being sure is worth something, by the way, unless you would have preferred to take Saddam's word for it.) So, should it now be my own turn? What did I most get wrong? Hell, I'm not feeling masochistic today. But come on, Hitchens, the right-thinking now insist that you concede at least something.

The thing that I most underestimated is the thing that least undermines the case. And it's not something that I overlooked, either. But the extent of lumpen Islamization in Iraq, on both the Khomeinist and Wahhabi ends (call them Shiite and Sunni if you want a euphemism that insults the majority), was worse than I had guessed.

And this is also why I partly think that Colin Powell, as reported by Woodward, was right. He apparently asked the president if he was willing to assume, or to accept, responsibility for the Iraqi state and society. The only possible answer, morally and politically, would have been "yes." The United States had already made itself co-responsible for Iraqi life, first by imposing the sanctions, second by imposing the no-fly zones, and third by co-existing with the regime. (Three more factors, by the way, that make the Vietnam comparison utterly meaningless.) This half-slave/half-free compromise could not long have endured.

The antiwar Left used to demand the lifting of sanctions without conditions, which would only have gratified Saddam Hussein and his sons and allowed them to rearm. The supposed neutrals, such as Russia and France and the United Nations, were acting as knowing profiteers in a disgusting oil-for-bribes program that has now been widely exposed. The regime-change forces said, in effect: Lift the sanctions and remove the regime. But in the wasted decade of sanctions-plus-Saddam, a whole paranoid and wretched fundamentalist underclass was created and exploited by the increasingly Islamist propaganda of the Baath Party. This also helps explain the many overlooked convergences between the supposedly "secular" Baathists and the forces of jihad.

When fools say that the occupation has "united" Sunni and Shiite, they flatter the alliance between the proxies of the Iranian mullahs and the Saudi princes. And they ignore the many pleas from disputed and distraught towns, from Iraqis who beg not to be abandoned to these sadistic and corrupt riffraff. One might have seen this coming with greater prescience. But it would have made it even more important not to leave Iraq to the post-Saddam plans of such factions. There was no way around our adoption of Iraq, as there still is not. It's only a pity that the decision to intervene was left until so many years had been consumed by the locust.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.