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To War, or Not to War (Part 2)

June 7, 2012

John A. Nagl, the author of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, writes in today’s New York Times that we live in an age of “unsatisfying wars.”  Wars of counterinsurgency, he says, end in defeat at worst and “muddled” at best.  He cites Vietnam as an example of defeat and Iraq as an example of muddle, and he wonders which will be the result in Afghanistan.  I think Nagl misunderstands what we  accomplished by our war in Iraq.

Iraq is nominally democratic, but deeply divided.  The government is only semi-functional.  Transparency International ranks Iraq 175th out of 182 in its Corruption Perceptions Index.  But the government is civilian, not military, the economy is fundamentally capitalist albeit chaotic, Iraqis enjoy private property rights, and the rule of law is aspired to, if not always achieved.

Before the war, Iraq was governed by a tyrant who suppressed the aspirations of all of his people, and especially those of the Kurds and the Shia, in favor of the Sunni minority.  The economy was shrinking, markets were not open, and the only law that mattered was Saddam Hussein’s whim.

So I suggest that one’s view of the success of our war in Iraq depends on one’s expectations of that war.  We can start that discussion by setting aside the clownish contentions of the George W. Bush administration that the object of the war was to disarm Hussein – to find and take his weapons of mass destruction.  I watched Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations, where he presented the American “evidence” against Hussein.  In the advance hype, the speech was compared to Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the UN where he laid out the American case that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.  As a political science major, I had studied the Cuba missile crisis and had watched film of the Stevenson speech.  And as a lawyer, I know what evidence looks like.  Powell’s speech, intended to convince the world that Iraq was building nukes, was a failure on both counts – the evidence was unconvincing, and the comparison to Stevenson was lame.  It was surely the low point of Colin Powell’s otherwise distinguished career.

We should also stipulate that Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, waged the Iraq war about as badly as it could possibly have been waged.  Rumsfeld was hell-bent to discredit the Powell Doctrine of the first Iraq war – never wage a war of choice except with overwhelming force.  So Rumsfeld sent over an army barely the size of a Boy Scout jamboree – enough, it turns out, to capture Iraq, but nowhere near enough to occupy it.

Rumsfeld seems to have thought that he could spring a liberal democratic regime full-grown from the dead brow of Saddam Hussein, but that’s not how it works.  I know of no country in history where unflawed democracy has flowed directly from the overthrow of a dictator.  Spain after the fall of Francisco Franco is the closest I can think of, and even the route from Franco to popular democracy was impeded by a coup.  Success depended on the good intentions of one man, King Juan Carlos.

Had our government been more acute in understanding Iraq before invading it, and more forthright with us about the struggle that lay ahead, we might have held more realistic expectations.  Since it was clear to me that we had no real evidence that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction, it was also clear to me that the only bona fide purpose of invading Iraq was to depose Hussein and lay the foundations for democratic self-government.

We should have gone in expecting not as Rumsfeld did, that Iraqis would embrace us as liberators, but that Iraqis would resent us as occupiers, and would use us as proxies for their own long-simmering grievances.  We should not have been shocked, shocked, to find out that Sunni, Shias and Kurds didn’t like each other very much.  We should have realized that a society that has lived under the thumb of such a violent dictator as Hussein inevitably has some pathologies to work out.  We should have occupied Iraq with an army sufficient to deal not just with Rumsfeld’s “dead-enders,” but with unrest that unchecked would have grown to full-fledged civil war.

I would suggest a different model for measuring the success of our war in Iraq:  the Korean War.  Although our war in Korea was in its inception defensive, a reaction to the invasion of the South by the North, our goal was to preserve South Korea as capitalist and, one hopes, democratic.  At the end of the war in 1953, South Korea’s government, like Iraq’s now, was nominally democratic – the forms of elections were followed.  But in substance, South Korea government was mostly military and mostly authoritarian, punctuated by coups.  Not until the Sixth Republic in 1988 could South Korea claim a place among the liberal democracies of the world.  In my book, that makes the Korean War a success despite its high cost.

By that measure, I think our war in Iraq was a success.  Despite our government’s going to war for false reasons, and despite our government’s mind-boggling incompetence in prosecuting the war, I say it was a success, because I had different expectations for the war.  It was a success not because Iraq has emerged as a liberal democracy; it clearly has not.  But the war was a success because it gave Iraqis the chance to make their own destiny.  Whatever is made of Iraq, it will be Iraqis who make it.  Iraq’s fate for the first time is not determined by colonial, neo-colonial, or anti-colonial forces; Iraq’s fate is for the first time in the hands of Iraqis.

Iraq held parliamentary elections on March 7, 2010.  The process of determining and declaring winners was messy, and the process of forming a government was messier.  Frankly, it looked a lot like Belgium.  But on November 11, 2010, the deal was struck, and democratically elected legislative and executive branches began to govern Iraq.

Five weeks later, on December 17, 2010, a street vendor in Tunis named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares by a municipal tyrant, and the Arab Spring was launched.  I have no idea what was in Bouazizi’s mind, and I can’t prove that the Iraqi elections and the Arab Spring were cause and effect.  But I know that the average Arab in Tunis or in Cairo or in Homs or in Benghazi had to know that Hussein was gone from power and that Iraqis had held elections.  And I know that Arabs, like people everywhere, want to govern themselves.  So I simply cannot believe that the Arab Spring followed the Iraqi elections by mere coincidence.

And what should we suppose the average Iranian thought about Iraqi elections, less than a year after Iranians’ own effort at democratic self-government was so brutally suppressed?

The Arab road to self-government, like the road of all peoples to self-government, will not be flat, straight, short or direct.  There is no guarantee that any Arab country, let alone all of them, will find its way to democratic self-government anytime soon.  But if there is any good purpose to a war of choice, it must be to free a people from a tyrant and give them the opportunity to make their own future.

I know this is heresy to my fellow liberals.  I know I’m supposed to condemn our war in Iraq, and regard Afghanistan as the “good war.”  But I don’t.  Giving Iraqis a chance to make their own future was worth a high price.  Setting the Arab Spring in motion, giving all Arabs, maybe all Muslims, a chance to make their own futures, was surely worth the high price we paid in Iraq.

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