Saturday, March 22, 2008

What I Got Right About Iraq

So, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war is being marked by former (and not so former) supporters of the war describing what they got wrong. Long time war critics and even one of the participants have pointed out that the wrong people are being asked for their opinions. Why aren't we asking people who opposed the war from the start how they got it right? Granted, self-congradulation can annoying, but surely it makes more sense to listen to people who showed good judgment to understand what they saw so clearly than to listen to people whose judgment was so clearly wrong.

So, speaking as one who is not a commentator of any note and did not even have a blog at the, how did I nonetheless have the judgment not to support the war? I had two main objections to the war, well expressed by my two favorite commentators at the time, Georgie Ann Geyer and Molly Ivins. Their respective reasons for opposing the war are surprising. Ivins, an unabashed liberal, opposed the war because she feared it would be followed by the peace from hell. Geyer, a Cold War hawk, opposed the war for a deeper reason -- she was appalled at Bush's doctrine of preemption. I shared both concern.

First the easy one. I feared a Vietnam-style "people's war." Though not old enough to have any meaningful memories of Vietnam, I did remember Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO, which had been firing rockets at northern Israel. World opinion was shocked and outrage -- with one notable exception. The PLO was so hated and oppressive a presence in southern Lebanon that the Shiite inhabitants welcomed the Israelis with open arms as liberators.

It did not take long for the Israelis to wear out their welcome. Once it became clear that they were there to stay, within a few months, Shiites began attacking the Israeli forces. The Iranian intelligence service moved in to train the scattered resistence, and Hezbollah was born. In 2000, 18 years later, the Israeli army finally withdrew, its reputation for invincibility shattered forever, and a much more entrenched enemy to the north. The lesson for Iraq was obvious. Even if the Iraqis did great us as liberators, sooner or later we would wear out our welcome and then what? I had no idea how long it would take for our welcome to wear out, but from the start I never doubted that it would.

But opposing a war because you fear a bad outcome is still the easy way out. By implication, it means that one has no moral objections to the war and would support it if only one expected it to succceed. But my objections went deeper than that; I objected to the entire doctrine of preemptive war. Preemptive war sounded way too much like the doctrine that we got to invade any country we wanted, any time we wanted, for any reason we wanted, and no one else could challenge us. I had major moral objections to that. Or, as Geyer put it (quoting right-wing military historian William S. Lind):

"[W]henever one nation attempts to attain world dominance, it pushed everyone elase into a coalition against it." . . . The real question Lind and other historians see from history "is not whether the American drive for world hegemony will succeed; it will not. The question is why we are attempting it in the first place."
(Sorry, no link available).

These were the main reasons I opposed invading Iraq. But since the Bush Administration, kept giving justifications for the invasion, I did find refutations for them. The bare fact supporters of the war did not agree on a single, coherent reason to fight it was itself reason enough not to trust them. When a war is truly justified, there will be one, single immistakable reason to fight it. But going down their lists of reasons:

Ties to Al-Qaeda. It was obvious that there were none and any claims to the contrary were merely wishful thinking. That removed by far the most reasonable grounds for war.

Nuclear Weapons. I didn't believe it for a minute. During the first Gulf War, I originally hoped to settle matters without war. I was ultimately convinced to support the war by scare stories that Saddam was months away from developing nuclear weapons and that his army was so powerful as to be an intolerable threat. Our quick and easy victory proved how exaggerated these fears were. And now, just when some other President wanted to start a war, Saddam was months away from nuclear weapons again. I could smell hype a mile away.

Chemical and biological weapons. Like most people, I never doubted for one minute that Saddam had chemical weapons. We had what seemed like irrefutable proof; he had used them in the past. As for biological weapons, I was open to persuasion either way. But it was clear that he had no delivery vehicles capable of reaching us, or even Israel. His weapons threatened only his neighbors. If the neighbors had been frightened enough to favor preeemptive war, I probably would have supported it. But they didn't, so I didn't.

Giving WMD to terrorists. If we went to war every time someone could dream up a nightmare scenario, we would not have had a singe minute of peace for our entire history.

Humanitarian intervention. Saddam was beyond any doubt a brutal tyrant, and there were times in the past when a humanitarian intervention would have been justified. But there was no immediate humanitarian crisis in Iraq, so I could not see invasion as justified because of past atrocities.

Of course, I am not infallible. I got many things wrong about the war. I assumed Saddam had chemical weapons. I expected the initial invasion to take one to three months (it took three weeks). I expected resistence to stiffen as we moved into the Sunni heartland, and a Battle for Bagdad to occur. I expected more immediate hostility in Sunni areas (and a less friendly welcome among Shiites) than we got. I feared that Saddam, cornered, might take desparate measures such as using chemical or biological weapons, setting all the oil wells on fire, or flooding the Tigris and Euphrates. (But I still expected we would win in one to three months). I feared Sunni and Shiite might unite against us. And, although I also feared we might patch together a government that looked good, only to see it collapse into civil war and anarchy after we left, I assumed we would be strong enough to prevent civil war so long as we were present. That last was my most serious mistake.

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