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RETHINKING IRAQ: “I Told You So”

October 5, 2009

I’ll admit it. Back in my high school days I was on the “far left”. I staunchly opposed the war in 2003 and I’ve never been more frustrated in my life than after George Bush won the ’04 election. I even exchanged a tense back and forth after asking one of those long “IOP forum-esqe” statement/questions to Paul Bremer.

I’ll never forget what my favorite teacher at Andover told me later that night though. He remarked that even though you may have opposed the war when it started you can’t want to see Iraq fail simply so you can tell your buddies on the right, “I told you so”. Iraq is America’s war. And we are all Americans.

Much has been said about the folly of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003 and both the White House and Pentagon’s poor handling of the occupation that followed. It has become accepted thinking that Iraq was the “bad war” fought because of greed for oil or because of President Bush’s unrealistic dream to spread democracy to the Middle East on the tip of an M-16.  (Wait, where is all that oil again?)

It has become the forgotten war. And like Vietnam, the war we “lost”.

But 10 to 20 years from now historians (at least unbiased ones) may look back and see a different picture. While Iraq indeed suffered from an extremely high level of violence and instability in the years between 2006 and 2008 the troop increase and strategy overhaul termed the “surge” carried out by General Petraues beginning in January of 2007 (and backed by President Bush) has by all means worked: Iraq is a relatively stable country with a nascent and functioning democratic government. General Odierno reported to Congress September 30th that since 2007 US military deaths have decreased 93% and sectarian related murders have fallen nearly 90%. Mexico last year had more violent deaths than Iraq. What’s more important is how Iraqis now respond to terror and violence. At the end of August, Insurgents struck at the center of government power with two truck bombs against the Finance Ministry and Foreign Ministry killing 95 people. These attacks by Sunni radicals were aimed at breaking the confidence of the new Iraqi government after the US troop withdraw from major cities June 30th and starting another sectarian violence cycle like the one that devastated Iraq after the Golden Dome bombing in Samarra in 2006. Neither of these two things happened. Iraq’s government stood fast.

Most significantly perhaps, just this past week Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki formed a broad political coalition designed to reach across ethnic and sectarian lines in the upcoming 2010 vote. Iraq is emerging as a relatively peaceful democracy in the heart of the Middle East – a region traditionally plagued by totalitarian and violent regimes. Whether you’re on the right or the left you have to admit this is a pretty amazing feat. Who knows what kind of influence Iraq’s democratic example had on Iran and the people’s dissatisfaction with the election outcomes there this past June.

Iraq of course is far from perfect and by all means remains a dangerous place. It still must overcome a great degree of ethno-sectarian divisions, rebuild a devastated infrastructure and fend off radical Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As General Odierno reminded Congress, “Iraq is a nascent democracy emerging from 30 years of authoritarian rule based on ethno-sectarian privilege.” The key point though is that Iraq has reached a turning point: Iraqis now seek change through the political process, not violence. Iraqis have taken responsibility for Iraq.

In all of this, we must be fair and the United States should be given credit for the incredible sacrifices it has made for Iraq. Were mistakes made? Yes. But they were not made out of cruel intentions to kill Iraqis or evil desires to take over the country. Responding to a question from Tim Russert about America’s miscalculation about how Iraqis would greet invading US Soldiers, John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the NY Times, responded, “The instincts that led to much that went wrong, were good American instincts. The desire not to have too heavy a footprint. The desire to empower Iraqis.” Never in modern history has such a brutal dictatorship been overthrown and an attempt to build a democracy from the remains been undertaken. It’s never been done before; give us a little break.

Even though Iraq has taken these leaps and bounds in progressing towards a functioning democracy the left’s perception of the war hasn’t changed all that much over the past two years. The problem is that no matter what actually happens in Iraq – an increase in stability, democratic development or economic growth for example – most people on the left won’t change their mind on the war. In Psychology this phenomenon is called “Motivated Reasoning”: we listen to the facts that support our assertions and disregard those that don’t. Their opinion about the “unjustness” of the war made in 2003 or perhaps their opinion of the “futility” of the war formed in 2006 does not change no matter what does in Iraq in 2009.

No matter what you think about the war or how it was conducted we have given Iraqis a better shot at a better life. And while mistakes were made our intentions have always been good.

We should all want to see Iraq succeed. And likewise we should all want President Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, whatever it may end up being, to succeed.

Being able to say, “I told you so” is just not worth it.

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