The ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War has brought out its critics, in force. Many, but not all of them were against the war from the beginning. Some are against almost all wars; others are especially opposed to American wars.
The latter cohort sees America as a great sinner. Lacking in moral stature America does not have a right to defend itself, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances. If any of its troops participate in morally dubious enterprises the loss of moral stature makes its military efforts even more unworthy of support.
It is fair to say that none of them, had they been around at the time would have been whining about how America lost the moral high ground by incinerating three cities during World War II.
They would agree, however, that if America atones for its moral faults by electing an African-American president it regains moral stature and has the right to send killer drones around the world.
To those who believe that America is a nation in need of a good moral cleanse, it all makes perfect sense.
When the Iraq War started anti-warriors were especially agitated because the war was being conducted by a Republican president. They believed that military success would be a political boon for Republicans. They would win more and more elections. Before you knew it the Supreme Court would be a subsidiary of News Corp.
Worst yet, a successful war validates martial and therefore manly virtues. Those who believe that America should be radically feminized feared for their position in the ongoing culture war.
Today, ten years on, precious few people see the Iraq War as a success. Peggy Noonan correctly sees it as an albatross that is dragging down the Republican Party.
The sad truth is that a political party that prides itself on being strong in foreign affairs and that supports and defends the military has led the nation to something other than a military victory.
You can parse as you wish, but in the matter of warfare there is a bottom line: you win or you lose. Or else, you win or you don’t win.
The Bush administration, Noonan animadverts: “… started a war and didn’t win it.”
However invalid the criticisms of the Bush administration, however distorted the charges of lying and of hubris, it led us into a war and didn’t win it.
The rest is static.
Clearly, the press and the Democrats have been playing the Iraq War card with reckless abandon. Yet, if America had emerged victorious; if the policy had been unambiguously successful; they would all be congratulating themselves for having supported it from the beginning.
In the case of Iraq, the mud sticks because there is no Teflon. The war was mismanaged and mishandled. Blame it on whom you wish; the people in charge were responsible.
Unless you believe that the Bush administration possessed intelligence that demonstrated that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the charge that it lied is bogus. Yet, the charge sticks because the Bush administration did not keep its word on so many other issues.
[The Iraq War] was longer and costlier by every measure than the Bush administration said it would be.
Before Iraq, the GOP's primary calling card was that it was the party you could trust in foreign affairs. For half a century, throughout the Cold War, they were serious about the Soviet Union, its moves, feints and threats. Republicans were not ambivalent about the need for and uses of American power, as the Democrats were in the 1970s and 1980s, but neither were they wild. After Iraq it was the Republicans who seemed at best the party of historical romantics or, alternatively, the worst kind of cynic, which is an incompetent one. Iraq marked a departure in mood and tone from past conservatism.
That is how the war is playing politically; it is not all just propaganda.
Of course, more sober and better-informed people have also been trying to put it all into perspective.
Dexter Filkins covered the war for the New York Times. Today he writes for the New Yorker. In a recent piece he explained that for many Iraqis the new order is vastly superior to the old order. For Iraqi Kurds things are much better now than they were in Saddam’s time.
In Filkins’ words:
Today, in 2013—a decade later—it’s not fashionable to suggest that the American invasion of Iraq served any useful purpose. It was a catastrophe, born of original sin—of lies and exaggeration and trumped-up intelligence. How many times have you heard that this week? There are a hundred thousand dead Iraqis, more than four thousand Americans killed, and a bill for a trillion dollars. Indeed, the near-universal certainty that America’s war in Iraq was nothing but bad is as widespread and unbreachable as the notion, in 2003, that Saddam had to go.
But what are we to make of Iraqis like Al-Musawi? Or of torture chambers like Al Hakemiya? Where do we place them in our memories? And, more important, how should they shape our judgment of the war we waged?
I’d say: Ask the Iraqis—that is, if anyone, in this moment of American navel-gazing, can be bothered to do so. My guess is that the answers would be richer and more surprising than the one-dimensional debate we are engaging in at home.
Mark Steyn offers a cautionary note to those who believe that the war’s outcome proves that they were right. They ought, he adds, consider that they do not know what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had remained in power:
And so a genuinely reformed Middle East remains, like the speculative scenarios outlined at the top, in the realm of "alternative history."
Unfortunately, Steyn continues, America has fallen into the habit of conducting wars that it is not winning. Echoing Noonan’s remark, he says that when you get into a war, you can win it or lose it.
Nevertheless, in the grim two-thirds-of-a-century roll-call of America's unwon wars, Iraq today is less unwon than Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, and that is not nothing. The war dead of America and its few real allies died in an honorable cause. But armies don't wage wars; nations do. And, back on the home front, a vast percentage of fair-weather hawks who decided that it was all too complicated, or a bit of a downer, or Bush lied, or where's the remote, revealed America as profoundly unserious . A senator who votes for war and then decides he'd rather it had never started is also engaging in "alternative history" – albeit of the kind in which Pam Ewing steps into the shower at Southfork and writes off the previous season of "Dallas" as a bad dream. In nonalternative history, in the only reality there is, once you've started a war, you have two choices: to win it or to lose it. Withdrawing one's "support" for a war you're already in advertises nothing more than a kind of geopolitical ADHD.
Shortly after Gulf War One, when the world's superpower assembled a mighty coalition to fight half-a-war to an inconclusive halt at the gates of Baghdad, Washington declined to get mixed up in the disintegrating Balkans. Colin Powell offered the following rationale: "We do deserts. We don't do mountains." Across a decade in Iraq, America told the world we don't really do deserts, either.
Steyn is right to suggest that armies do not wage wars; nations do. He would have been more right to add that political parties do not wage war; nations do. The Iraq War was not a Republican war; it was an American war.
The Republican Party was not the only loser; America lost too.
Failing to win a war demoralizes a nation. It will pull back from its commitments to nurse its wounds. Governments around the world will lose respect for it. Then, it will lose confidence in itself and its people will lose confidence in themselves. It will happen to all, Republican or Democrat.
Those who are congratulating themselves on being right are missing the point and ignoring their own loss.