How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?
Editor's note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, "Why did we get it wrong?" We have invited contributions from the best-known "liberal hawks," many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week. Read the rest of the contributions.
An "anniversary" of a "war" is in many ways the least useful occasion on which to take stock of something like the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq, if only because any such formal observance involves the assumption that a) this is, in fact, a war and b) it is by that definition an exception from the rest of our engagement with that country and that region. I am one of those who, for example, believes that the global conflict that began in August 1914 did not conclusively end, despite a series of "fragile truces," until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is not at all to redefine warfare and still less to contextualize it out of existence. But when I wrote the essays that go to make up A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, I was expressing an impatience with those who thought that hostilities had not really "begun" until George W. Bush gave a certain order in the spring of 2003.
Anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with Iraq would have to know that a heavy U.S. involvement in the affairs of that country began no later than 1968, with the role played by the CIA in the coup that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein's wing of the Baath Party to power. Not much more than a decade later, we come across persuasive evidence that the United States at the very least acquiesced in the Iraqi invasion of Iran, a decision that helped inflict moral and material damage of an order to dwarf anything that has occurred in either country recently. In between, we might note minor episodes such as Henry Kissinger's faux support to Kurdish revolutionaries, encouraging them to believe in American support and then abandoning and betraying them in the most brutal and cynical fashion.
If you can bear to keep watching this flickering newsreel, it will take you all the way up to the moment when Saddam Hussein, too, switches sides and courts Washington, being most in favor in our nation's capital at the precise moment when he is engaged in a campaign of extermination in the northern provinces and retaining this same favor until the very moment when he decides to "engulf" his small Kuwaiti neighbor. In every decision taken subsequent to that, from the decision to recover Kuwait and the decision to leave Saddam in power to the decisions to impose international sanctions on Iraq and the decision to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, stating that long-term coexistence with Saddam's regime was neither possible nor desirable, there was a really quite high level of public participation in our foreign policy. We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, "lied into war." We became steadily more aware that the option was continued collusion with Saddam Hussein or a decision to have done with him. The president's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, laying out the considered case that it was time to face the Iraqi tyrant, too, with this choice, was easily the best speech of his two-term tenure and by far the most misunderstood.
That speech is widely and wrongly believed to have focused on only two aspects of the problem, namely the refusal of Saddam's regime to come into compliance on the resolutions concerning weapons of mass destruction and the involvement of the Baathists with a whole nexus of nihilist and Islamist terror groups. Baghdad's outrageous flouting of the resolutions on compliance (if not necessarily the maintenance of blatant, as opposed to latent, WMD capacity) remains a huge and easily demonstrable breach of international law. The role of Baathist Iraq in forwarding and aiding the merchants of suicide terror actually proves to be deeper and worse, on the latest professional estimate, than most people had ever believed or than the Bush administration had ever suggested.
This is all overshadowed by the unarguable hash that was made of the intervention itself. But I would nonetheless maintain that this incompetence doesn't condemn the enterprise wholesale. A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society. Further afield, a perfectly defensible case can be made that the Syrian Baathists would not have evacuated Lebanon, nor would the Qaddafi gang have turned over Libya's (much higher than anticipated) stock of WMD if not for the ripple effect of the removal of the region's keystone dictatorship.
None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don't know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam's immense network of mass graves. There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it's not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn't count, and we are not involved. Nonetheless, the very thing that most repels people when they contemplate Iraq, which is the chaos and misery and fragmentation (and the deliberate intensification and augmentation of all this by the jihadists), invites the inescapable question: What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?
The past years have seen us both shamed and threatened by the implications of the Berkeleyan attitude, from Burma to Rwanda to Darfur. Had we decided to attempt the right thing in those cases (you will notice that I say "attempt" rather than "do," which cannot be known in advance), we could as glibly have been accused of embarking on "a war of choice." But the thing to remember about Iraq is that all or most choice had already been forfeited. We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of toppled statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad by Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images.