America and Iraq

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Wall Street Journal

Five years after U.S. and coalition forces began rolling into Iraq on their way to Baghdad, it's easy to lament the war's mistakes.

The Bush administration underestimated the war's cost -- in treasure, and most painfully in lives. The CIA and every other Western intelligence agency was wrong about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. failed to anticipate the insurgency and was almost fatally late in implementing a counterinsurgency. It allowed the U.N. to design a system of proportional electoral representation that has encouraged its sectarian political divisions. And so on.

These columns have often discussed these and other blunders. But we have always done so while supporting the larger war effort and with a goal of victory that would be worthy of the sacrifice. Five years on, and thanks to the troop "surge" and strategy change of the last year, many of the goals that motivated the original invasion are once again within reach if we see the effort through.


No one should forget that the invasion toppled a dictator who had already terrorized the region and would sooner or later have threatened American interests. This by itself was no small achievement. Saddam's trial was a teaching moment for that part of the Arab world that used to cheer him; his hanging, however crudely carried out, was a warning to dictators everywhere.

Iraq may not have had WMD, but Saddam admitted to American interrogators that he planned to reconstitute his WMD effort once U.N. sanctions collapsed. The capture of Saddam persuaded Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to abandon his nuclear program and seek a reconciliation with the U.S. This in turn led to the rolling up of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's proliferation network, whose arms extended to Iran and North Korea.

Strategically, Iraq has gone from being one of America's two principal enemies (with Iran) in the region to one of its two principal allies (with Israel). Iraq's government, for all of its shortcomings, demonstrates that a Shiite-led government need not be a theocracy. The invasion did prompt thousands of jihadis to emerge from places like Saudi Arabia and Morocco to fight the "crusaders and infidels." Thousands of them are now dead or in prison, however, and the radical corners of the Arab world have learned that America cannot be defeated by a strategy of car bombs and assassination.

The strategic case for toppling Saddam also rested in part on the idea that a free Iraq would provide a strategic counterweight to Iran and Syria, as well as an ideological counterexample for a region where autocracy is the norm. The potency of that combination has been demonstrated by Sunni Arab hostility to the new Iraqi government; by Iran, Syria and al-Qaida efforts to destabilize it; and by those in the West who have sought to denigrate the effort as a way to diminish U.S. power.

Today, those efforts have largely failed. A new generation of European leaders has no interest in humiliating the U.S. and understands the danger of a chaotic Iraq. Al-Qaida has been nearly destroyed as a fighting force in Iraq and has lost support in the Arab Street with its brutality against Iraq's Sunni Arabs. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Sunni states are belatedly coming to terms with the new Iraq as they conclude that the U.S. won't leave in defeat.

The Iraqi government is also at last beginning to meet its most important political commitments. Yesterday, Iraq's presidency council agreed to a law on provincial elections to go forward after a month's delay. The central government has passed a budget, approved a detainee amnesty, enlisted 425,000 men in its security forces and increased oil production to 2.4 million barrels a day while funneling $100 million a year to its provinces. This is happening while the number of daily insurgent attacks has been cut by about two-thirds, with commensurate declines in civilian and military casualties.

Where do we go from here? Iraq's transition to self-government remains fragile enough that U.S. forces will need to remain there in some numbers for years to come. The two countries will have to strike a long-term U.S.-Iraq military agreement, which would serve the interests of both countries. For Iraq, it would show America's continuing commitment in a rough neighborhood. And for the U.S., it would make the job of containing Iran easier. President Bush can best serve his Presidential successor by leaving enough troops on the ground to give him or her some strategic flexibility.

It is therefore unfortunate, and dangerous, that both Democratic candidates have backed themselves into a corner by endorsing rapid withdrawal from Iraq. In a speech yesterday in North Carolina, Barack Obama called for an almost complete U.S. withdrawal in 16 months. He continues to endorse the illusion that defeat in Iraq will help us prevail in Afghanistan; the opposite is closer to the truth. We will never maintain the support, either at home or abroad, to prevail in Afghanistan if we show we can be driven from the more vital strategic prize of Iraq.


In our March 18, 2003, editorial on the eve of Iraq's liberation, we supported the war while noting that "toppling Saddam is a long-term undertaking" and "the U.S. has never been good at nation-building."

We wish we had been wrong on both counts, but our view has always been that nations shouldn't begin wars they don't intend to win. And newspapers don't endorse wars only to walk away when the fighting gets difficult. The U.S. sacrifice in Iraq has been honorable, our soldiers have fought superbly, and the best way -- the only way -- to honor both is to leave Iraq in victory.

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