»  National Review Online

June 12th, 2006

  Apologizing for Iraq

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My son is passing through that very annoying stage of development in which a child discovers that language is not so much like a solid landscape of rocks and trees, but much more like a well-equipped theater stage, fitted out with screens, doors to nowhere, trick lighting, turntables, trapdoors, and wires to lift you up into the flies. He has, in short, discovered ambiguity. Asked whether he has finished his homework, he will furrow his brow and say: "Define 'finished'." No doubt the lad will make a fine attorney (or opinion journalist) one day. In the meantime we must endure his relentless parsing.

I retreat to that developmental phase myself when friends ask me, as they do on average about once a week, whether I feel embarrassed at having supported the Iraq war. "Define 'war,'" is the thing I want to say. I don't say it, of course, exactly because it sounds like an irritating 11-year-old, but it's really the essence of the matter. Did I support the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Yes I did. Do I support the continuing effort to get civil society going in Iraq? No I don't, and haven't for over two years. So do I support the war? Well … define "war."

Let's start from the fact that the whole thing, taken in one piece — attack plus follow-up nation-building effort — has been a huge negative for the USA. Is there anyone, really, who is glad we did it? Most of my NR colleagues are still talking up the administration's Iraq policy. It's hard not to think, though, that if wired up to a polygraph and asked the question: "Supposing you could wind the movie back to early 2003, would you still attack Iraq?" any affirmative answers would have those old needles a-jumping and a-skipping all over the graph paper.

We are stuck there in that wretched place with no way out that would not involve massive loss of geostrategic face. Getting on for 3,000 of our troops have been killed, and close to 20,000 maimed. We've spent untold billions of dollars. For what?

One reason I supported the initial attack, and the destruction of the Saddam regime, was that I hoped it would serve as an example, deliver a psychic shock to the whole region. It would have done, if we'd just rubbled the place then left. As it is, the shock value has all been frittered away. Far from being seen as a nation willing to act resolutely, a nation that knows how to punish our enemies, a nation that can smash one of those ramshackle Mideast despotisms with one blow from our mailed fist, a nation to be feared and respected, we are perceived as a soft and foolish nation, that squanders its victories and permits its mighty military power to be held to standoff by teenagers with homemade bombs — that lets crooks and bandits tie it down, Gulliver-like, with a thousand little threads of blackmail, trickery, lies, and petty violence.

Just ask yourself: Given that Iran is the real looming threat in that region, are we better placed now to deal with that threat than we would have been absent an Iraq war? If we could ask President Ahmadinejad whether he thinks we are better placed, what would his honest answer be?

We are not controlling events in Iraq. Events in Iraq are controlling us. We are the puppet; the street gangs of Baghdad and Basra are the puppet-masters, aided and abetted by an unsavory assortment of confidence men, bazaar traders, scheming clerics, ethnic front men, and Iranian agents. With all our wealth and power and idealism, we have submitted to become the plaything of a rabble, and a Middle Eastern rabble at that. Instead of rubbling, we have ourselves been rabbled. The lazy-minded evangelico-romanticism of George W. Bush, the bureaucratic will to power of Donald Rumsfeld, the avuncular condescension of Dick Cheney, and the reflexive military deference of Colin Powell combined to get us into a situation we never wanted to be in, a situation no self-respecting nation ought to be in, a situation we don't know how to get out of. It's not inconceivable that, with a run of sheer good luck, we might yet escape without too much egg on our faces, but it's not likely. The place we are at is surely not a place anyone in 2003 wanted us to be at — not even Vic Davis Hanson.

Since the Iraq War was obviously a gross blunder, is it time for those of us who cheered on the war to offer some kind of apology? Here we are — we, the United States — in our fourth year of occupying that sinkhole, and it looks pretty much like the third year, or the second. Will the eighth year of our occupation, or our twelfth, look any better? I know people who will say yes, but I no longer know any who will say it with real conviction. It's a tough thing, to admit you were wrong. It's way tough if you're a big name pundit with a reputation to preserve. For those of us down at the bottom of the pundit pecking order, the stakes aren't so high. I, at any rate, am willing to eat some crow and say: I wish I had never given any support to this fool war.

I am spared major embarrassment not only by the slightness of my own reputation, as by the fact that while I supported the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the regime, I never thought much of the nation-building exercise that followed. It took me a while to figure out that the administration actually believed all the guff about "establishing democracy in the Middle East," but once it had sunk in, and the party enthusiasms of the 2004 election season had subsided, I was calling for withdrawal. (The first time I gave over a column to it was, I think, in mid-September of 2004.) I wish I had done so earlier. And, yes, I'll admit, I wish I hadn't supported the invasion in the first place.

Why did I? For the reasons I declared on another website, just a year after the invasion:

My attitude to the war is really just punitive, and Iraq was a target of opportunity. I am not a Wilsonian nation-builder. I don't want to "bring democracy to Iraq." I don't, in fact, give a fig about the Iraqis. I am happy to leave barbarians alone to practice their unspeakable folkways, so long as they do not bother civilized peoples. When they do bother us, though, I want them smacked down with great ferocity. Saddam Hussein had been scoffing for years at the very concept of international order, in the belief that we would never pass from words to deeds. I wanted to see that belief confounded, and I am pleased that it has been. If the civilized world is never willing to back up its agreements, resolutions, and communiqués with force, then those fine documents are all worthless and civilization is impotent against its enemies. I am very glad to know that we have not yet reached that sorry pass.

I worry a lot that the civilized world, of which this nation is faute de mieux the leader, has sunk into an enervated lassitude, a condition in which it is unwilling to act against threatening, or just annoying, barbarians. Every time we defer to some United Nations resolution, every time we offer an olive branch to some thug ruler, every time we declare our willingness to sit around a table with some crazy demagogue, I think of the old League of Nations, which was mighty big on resolutions, olive branches, and sittings-around of tables. Of course, those things are the basic stuff of diplomacy, and we have to do a certain amount of them. There comes a point, though, where they don't suffice, and a nation must act. Back in mid-2002 I fearedthat we had no will to attack Iraq, though I said I wanted us to. I really feared that we had no will, no guts, to chastise our enemies the way I wanted them chastised — not with U.N. resolutions, but with bombs, tanks, and artillery shells. When events proved me wrong, I was delighted. (I felt the same delight when Margaret Thatcher, Whom God Preserve, went to war over the Falkland Islands in 1982.) Now we must act, we really must act, against Iran; but we can't, because of Iraq.

I've never been able to work up any guilt, either on my own behalf or the administration's, about the WMD issue. So far as I am concerned, what did I know? Saddam's behavior sure made it look as though he was hiding something nasty. As an ordinary citizen, getting my information from newspapers and the TV, I had every reason to suppose that the WMD claims were true. Just why Saddam was behaving like that is now a bit of a mystery. Possibly he was a secret fan of classic Chinese literature (or opera) attempting a sort of Empty Fort Strategy. As for the administration: Well, either they knew the intelligence was worthless, or they didn't. If they knew, then their duty was to assume the worst, and present it to us as the worst. If they didn't know, then they honestly believed the lousy intelligence. None of this excuses the CIA's incompetence, of course; but even that incompetence serves the good conservative purpose of driving home to the populace the fact that the federal government sucks at pretty much everything.

So why am I eating crow? Because I think it was foolish of me to suppose that the administration would act with the punitive ruthlessness I hoped to see. The rubble-and-out approach was not one that this administration, or perhaps any administration in the present state of our culture, would be willing to pursue. The universalist dogmas that rule unchallenged in our media and educational institutions have fixed their grip on our foreign policy, too. When the founders of our nation said "all men" they had in mind Christian Anglo-Saxon men. Our leaders, though, want to bring the whole world under the scope of those grand Lockeian principles.

Perhaps this will work, or perhaps it won't. My belief is, and always has been, that it won't. My fault was in not grasping the scale of the administration's multiculturalist ambitions. (Of which, to be fair to them, they had given plenty of hints, and even one or two frank declarations of intent.) George W. Bush believes that, to borrow and adjust a line from the Colonel in Full Metal Jacket: "Inside every Middle East Muslim there is an American trying to get out." The effort to stabilize Iraq, and the reluctance to just leave the Iraqis to fight each other among the rubble, followed inevitably from that belief, which is, according to me, a false belief. I see all that now. I didn't see it then. I am sorry.