Taking Credit for Iraq

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Jonah Goldberg observes that America's view, or at least the elite view, of the Iraq war is changing:

Indeed, that’s what’s so interesting about the strange turn in the zeitgeist. Many of the war’s most ardent opponents claimed that Americans didn’t like the war for the same reasons the hard Left didn’t. But all that talk about “imperialism,” “neoconservatism,” “Cheney-Halliburton blood for oil,” and the rest was not at the core of the war’s unpopularity. What most Americans didn’t like was that we were losing militarily and costing the precious lives of our troops.

I think this is half-right. Reading this, you'd think the only objections to invading Iraq concerned the leftist critique about Halliburton, etc. And sure, there was plenty of that. But the most powerful objection, made by Scowcroft and others, was the one that centered on necessity. This argument did not win the day at the time, but as the war dragged on and the costs became clearer, Americans began to reassess the fundamental question of necessity. Yes, Goldberg is right, Americans want short and victorious wars. Who doesn't? But why wasn't the Iraq war short? After all, we deposed Saddam in a matter of weeks. Why didn't the Bush administration begin a rapid draw-down of American troops after "Mission Accomplished?" Why, ultimately, did concerns for the stability of post-war Iraq keep the U.S. mired in the place for years after the initial victory over Saddam was achieved?

Part of it was clearly an egregious lack in post-war planning. But perhaps a more important issue was the war's lack of legitimacy (i.e. its lack of necessity). The failure to find WMD knocked the legs out of the national security rationale for the invasion. If the administration had nevertheless packed up and left quickly, leaving Iraq in a shambles, it would have been damned twice. So the only possible redemption for the effort lay in an attempt to rebuild the country into a pro-Western democracy.

Goldberg, in his own way, acknowledges this:

First and foremost, it’s a sign that the war in Iraq, while costly and deservedly controversial, was not for nothing. Putting Iraq on a path to democracy and decency is a noble accomplishment of which Americans — of all parties — should be proud. Even if you think the war wasn’t worth it or that it was unjustified, only the truly blinkered or black-hearted can be vexed by the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone and the country is on the path to better days.

Should this occur, it is indeed a noble accomplishment, but what of the road to get there? The path from Saddam to self-government is piled high with Iraqi dead. The rough estimates for the numbers of Iraqis killed since the invasion reaches into the tens of thousands, and possibly over 100,000.

Obviously we don't know what might have been in Iraq. Maybe Saddam and his brutal minions would have killed an equal number of Iraqis before they gave way to a new government - which may have been even worse. Maybe the country would have come apart after Saddam's death and led to an equal number killed. Maybe all possible roads that diverged from America's decision to invade involved considerably more dead Iraqis than the one we took. All of that is very plausible. But you can't ignore the fact that the road we took resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis. If Goldberg and other war supporters want to make the omelet/egg argument about their lives and the creation of a new democracy, fine. But I think it's difficult to try to take credit for the emergence of a democratic government in Iraq without simultaneously taking "credit" (or rather, responsibility) for the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed to get there.

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