July 23, 2008

Iraq: a Re-Assessment with the Aid of Hindsight

I try to stay reasonably well-informed on matters political, at least enough to vote effectively, but with Iraq it might be a worthwhile enterprise to see where I went wrong. Of course, any self-assessment will be necessarily biased but...

Decision to Go into Iraq

  • Morality?

    I supported GWB's right to go in, which is different than supporting going in. The right to go in was demonstrated for me by the fact that Hussein had thrown out the UN inspectors out and had violated the terms of the Gulf War for years. In other words, there wasn't a Gulf War and an Iraq War, there was only a Gulf War with a decade break.

    Perhaps now that seems a bit flimsy since wars are unpredictable and what is on paper doesn't have to be enforced. To me, the Gulf War ceasefire agreement was like a binding contract and if the terms were violated then it automatically should trigger action even though that sounds a bit like how WW I got started. Of course, some would say that the very fact that we honor some agreements and not others is why Saddam felt free to not take the U.S.'s threats seriously in the first place. So it's complicated. By not backing up your word you end up creating conditions for a greater conflict. But by backing up your word you can also create misery on an unparalleled scale (WW I).

    It's interesting to me that Weigel & Novak seemed more interested in sanctioning the war for the notion of preemptive strike rather than any enforcement of the Gulf War treaty, which means my analysis was likely on thin ground.

  • Prudent?

    I wasn't sure if it was prudent, given the conservative maxim is that culture trumps politics and we conservatives loathe nation-building. I misjudged Bush in thinking he was on the same page concerning nation-building; in fact he said before 9/11 that he wanted a "humble" foreign policy, which obviously meant not saving the world for democracy.

    Bush changed his mind and I think that's because, for better or worse, he is loyal to people, not principles. Loyal to the citizens he leads in having to make sure every threat was responded to, preemptively if necessary. But the loyalty was not abstract but personal: I recall being greatly surprised that he could look into the eye of a Russian leader like Putin and say that he knew his soul. Later he nominated Harriet Myers for Supreme Court and that likewise spoke volumes. Finally, the fact that he constantly stayed far too long with bad appointments and generals suggests that loyalty was more important than performance. Who knew? It's the rarest of attributes in politics since a politician usually only tries to save his own skin. Is Bush the anti-Nixon who abhors "Real Politik"? Certainly the Real Politik'rs, like the Bush I buddies, hated the Iraq policy from the beginning (maybe seeing the friction between Iraq and Iran as keeping the other in line and thus beneficial to the West?).

    I suppose I should've realized that toppling Saddam Hussein automatically meant nation-building, at least according to the Powell doctrine of "you break it, you bought it", though I've heard that Tony Blair advocated the attractive policy of toppling Saddam & sons while leaving the Baathists in charge (i.e. getting out of there immediately). I haven't been able to confirm it via Googling yet. The downside to that would be that naysayers would say "well, they'll just put another Hussein in and you'll have to go back!" but of course how could going back possibly be any more expensive in terms of lives and money than staying there for seven years (and likely 70) as we have now?

    Two people I respected gave me pause. One, Pope John Paul II, and two, Russell Kirk. Kirk was not alive at the start of the Iraq War but he spoke from the grave when I read that he opposed the Gulf War. The Iraq War wouldn't seem prudent or legit if the Gulf War was not. But I couldn't see anything wrong with the Gulf War given that a) Hussein had tried to take over a sovereign nation and b) there was nothing to stop him from taking Saudi Arabia.


    Going in, I didn't think the war would be so obviously imprudent that it meant that for all practical purposes GWB didn't have the right to go in. I think that's primarily because I couldn't imagine that Bush didn't have a plan to get out before the next election. In other words, I completely misread Bush although I can't entirely fault myself since I had no exposure to, nor experience of, another politician quite like him. I'd never seen a politician so accepting of unpopularity. It's usually not in their nature. Ronald Reagan immediately backed the troops out of Lebanon. Not having been around during the FDR/Truman/Eisenhower era, I had no idea a president could be stubborn, patient and impervious to public opinion. So I took it for granted that Bush had an "exit strategy" even though most wars don't have exit strategies. While I'd seen Bush before 2001 as a pragmatist, a "CEO type" who would examine results and react swiftly, it turns out he was something of a dreamer and loyalist who would react slowly to the facts on the ground.


    At the time it was highly controversial, but I wondered why it was so. How could geater force concentration not work? But at the same time I didn't think it would bring the troops home any earlier. In both of these it appears I was right. It appears though that the success of the surge was due mostly to the rather amazing effectiveness of General Petraeus.

    Iraqi Civilians

    This is a mixed bag. It's said that a million children died during the economic sanctions that were put in place to try to get Hussein to honor the Gulf War ceasefire, so the war seemed like a peace compared to that holocaust. Of course, who knows what numbers to trust? There are so many floating around. But it's true that Iraqi Christians have been persecuted and fled, such that there is perhaps only a quarter still in Iraq. Their sad plight and persecution I hadn't anticipated, nor had the media, at least the MSM I'd seen.


    The renewed belligerence of Iran makes sense mostly in hindsight. Hussein feared Iran far more than America and thus covered up the fact that he lacked WMDs and now we realize he wasn't paranoid. Western "experts" I'd read about were optimistic about Iran because they thought that unlike states like Egypt, where the leaders were far more friendly to the West than its citizens, with Iran it was supposedly the opposite.

    I got the impression theirs was a very unstable regime and that not most Iranians were too fond of being ruled by mullahs. Yet now any reversal of the Iranian revolution seems farther away than ever.
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