We just passed the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, and the staff of Reason magazine have been looking back to 2003 to review their positions on the war in Iraq then and now. I figure I might as well go on the record about where I stood then and where I stand now.
Back then, I knew I didn’t know enough to have a well-informed opinion (and I was still new enough to blogging to let that stop me), so I wrote very little about the invasion except for a tongue-in-cheek strategy suggestion. I was hardly a war booster, but if pressed I would have said that invading Iraq was probably a good thing.
To start with, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a great idea. He was a tyrant and I say death to tyrants.
There were those who opposed the invasion on the grounds that Iraq was a sovereign nation which we had no right to invade. I had a simple answer to that: The only legitimate governments are democracies. Any government which is not of, by, and for the people is not a government we should respect. Dictators are the moral equivalent of gangsters, and Saddam Hussein was no more the legitimate ruler of Iraq than John Gotti was the mayor of New York.
What give us the right? I think everyone has the right. You don’t need anybody else’s permission to free someone from tyranny. (You wouldn’t want to free someone against their will, of course, but in the absence of a clear and uncoerced statement to the contrary, I think it’s safe to assume that people want to be free.)
Then why not invade some other dictatorship such as Iran, Syria, or “our friends” the Saudis? I wouldn’t have a moral problem with overthrowing any of those governments, but an illegitimate government only keeps it from being immoral to invade, it doesn’t mean we have to invade.
Just because we believe people would be better off if we invaded, doesn’t mean it’s our duty as a nation to do so. Even back then, it was clear that an invasion would have a cost in blood and treasure, and we owe it to our soldiers and our taxpayers not to squander what they give us on wars that do not serve our national interest. We should only invade Iraq, I thought, if it also served a legitimate national interest.
That’s where the weapons of mass destruction came in. Keeping such weapons out of the hands of terrorists was a clear matter of national security.
Then there’s the oil. Protesters can chant “no blood for oil” all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that American civilization will crumble if we don’t get oil. The safety of our oil supply is a matter of national security as well, and if invading Iraq and setting up a free democracy will help stabilize the region, all the better.
I thought invading Iraq would serve a confluence of interests. A successful operation would
- overthrow a tyrant
- eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
- free the Iraqi people
- spread democracy in the middle east
- help stabilize the region
- safeguard our oil supply
But if an invasion is such a great idea, why wasn’t I a war booster?
Well, although that list makes the invasion sound like a terrific idea, there’s one very important point I left out which concerned me very much at the time: Invading Iraq and accomplishing the items on that list is only a good idea if it actually works.
The problem was, I knew far too little about the middle east, the Bush administration, and modern warfare to make many confident predictions. I was sure the initial invasion would sweep the Iraqi army from the battlefield, but when it came to picking up the pieces afterward, I had no idea what would happen.
The best I could figure out is that it all depended on the Iraqi people. If they welcomed us as liberators and enthusiastically started the hard work of building a free democracy, everything would be fine. But if they cooperated with an organized guerilla resistance movement, we’d be stuck in an ugly situation for a long time.
The best I could do was listen to what all sides were saying and decide who made the most sense. The Bush Administration had Colin Powell and access to everything our intelligence agencies knew about the middle east. The anti-war crowd had Hollywood celebrities and giant paper-machete heads, and they seemed to think that insulting George Bush for not approving the Kyoto agreement was a compelling argument against the war. (I’m simplifying a bit.) Also, the anti-war crowd had been wrong every step of the way in Afghanistan.
At the time, I still believed that, whatever their faults in other areas, the Bush administration was serious about national security. Also, without free speech the Iraqi people couldn’t tell us what they would really do if we invaded, but I figured our intelligence agencies had the assets and capability to make some really good guesses.
So, I figured the invasion would probably be successful, and therefore it was probably a good idea. I didn’t love the idea, but I thought evertything would turn out better in the end.
Once the war was underway, as I expected, we quickly accomplished the first goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
Troublingly, the second goal, destroying the weapons of mass destruction, proved to have been unnecessary.
As the war dragged on, we went backwards on the last two goals, stabilizing the region and safeguarding our oil supply. As for the middle two goals, I’m not sure if what the Iraqis have now can really be called freedom, and I don’t think we’ve impressed the Muslim world with the benefits of democracy.
Even after the war started to go bad, the question that kept nagging at me was “Would the world have been a better place if Saddam was still in charge in Iraq?” The answer, I thought, was “no.”
But here we are after five years of violent confict and Iraqis are still dying, Iran is emerging as an unopposed power in the region, and the enemy has learned a lot about how to fight us. I’m beginning to think it’s a no-win situation, and our best move is to admit it and cut our losses.
Of course, given my track record on this subject, it’s just as likely that the resistance is going to collapse next month, the Iraqis will begin to build a working society, and the liberals will gain power in Iran.
It’s probably better if you don’t pay attention to a thing I say.