The Kurds are no doubt better off without Saddam (though, as a result of U.S. overflight protection, put in place after the 1991 cease-fire, Saddam's mere presence didn't imperil their existence, as it had before the earlier Gulf War). The Sunnis are no doubt worse off. The Shiites—it's a mixed bag. Saddam and his thugs would have continued to kill innocent people—but the victims would have been different, and it is doubtful they would have been as numerous as the victims of the war. Nor would 4 million Iraqis be displaced. Nor would millions more have such severe shortages of health care, electricity, and clean water, or be afraid to walk their own streets. Were postwar Iraq a study in the trade-off between democracy and security, we could discuss it philosophically. But the Iraqis, at the moment, have neither.
Strategically, if Saddam had remained, the U.N. inspectors would have failed to find weapons of mass destruction, and thus pressure would have mounted to call off the sanctions. The Duelfer report, though it found no signs of WMD programs, concluded that, without sanctions, Saddam would have tried to start up those programs once again. It is reasonable to infer that if he'd succeeded, he could have threatened his neighbors and deterred intervention.
But is it the case that his attempts to rebuild WMD would have succeeded? We and other nations (Western and Arab) would have had to mount more active measures to monitor and block imports of contraband goods. (Even with no sanctions, the '91 cease-fire resolution's ban on WMD would have remained in effect.) It would have been hard but not impossible. International politics is a hard game. That's why it's important to hire skilled diplomats, a profession that this administration, until recently, has undervalued.
In any case, Saddam would have taken years to develop these weapons (the Duelfer report concluded that the programs were completely run down), and his efforts would have been detected long before they bore fruit. A civilized nation should never decide to go to war simply because a stable peace is hard to maintain. Yet that is what we did in the spring of 2003.
But isn't the surge working? Well, it depends what you mean by "working." In recent months, casualties—American and Iraqi—dropped substantially. However, three points need to be made. First, casualties are rising once more, though not to 2006 levels. Second, while the surge was certainly a factor in reducing casualties, it was far from the only factor. There were also the alliances of convenience between U.S. forces and Sunni tribesmen against the common foe of al-Qaida in Iraq (an alliance that preceded the surge); the moratorium on violence called by Muqtada Sadr and his Shiite militia (a policy that may be suspended as the Sunni militias grow stronger); and the fact that many areas of Iraq had already been ethnically cleansed.
More to the point, as Gen. David Petraeus has said many times, there is no military solution to Iraq. The surge has always been a means to an end—a device to create a "breathing space" of security in Baghdad so that Iraq's political factions can reach an accommodation. Without a political settlement, the surge—for that matter, the entire U.S. military presence, the blood we have shed, the treasure we have spent—will prove to be little more than a pause.
Back to the hypothetical speech at the top of this column, the one that President Bush might have given, had all the consequences of this war been foretold. The striking thing is, this is pretty much the caution that our military leaders are delivering now, in talking about future wars that we are likely to face. Gen. Petraeus made the point in the Army's field manual on counterinsurgency that he supervised before returning last year to Iraq. Such wars, the manual says, are by nature prolonged and costly; they are difficult to win, easy to lose; they require soldiers to be extremely creative and citizens to be ceaselessly patient.
One unstated lesson of the field manual is that our political leaders should think very carefully before plunging into war. If we are going to fight a war essentially by ourselves, as we have done in Iraq, our vital interests must clearly be at stake. If we are going to fight a war that does not involve vital interests, as has also been the case with this war, we must form a genuine coalition—to share the burdens but, more than that, to provide legitimacy to the cause. And if we can't do that, we shouldn't go to war at all.