Editor’s Note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, “Why did we get it wrong?” We have invited contributions from the best-known “liberal hawks,” many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week. Read the rest of the contributions.
“Why did we get it wrong?” is a loaded, indeed, leading question—one that would not have been quite as loaded and leading in 2004-06 as it is today. Those were the darkest days in the life of post-Saddam Iraq, and they delivered the gravest indictment against the Bush administration.
One year after George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech, U.S. monthly casualties had doubled. By the end of 2006, daily attacks by insurgents and terrorists had quintupled. Monthly multiple-fatality bombings had leapt tenfold from the end of 2003 to the end of 2006. It was a perfect horror story—and one that seemed to demonstrate in the bloodiest manner the folly of Bush’s war.
Meanwhile, of course, and especially in the wake of the surge, these numbers have gone down just as dramatically. Briefly, there are three explanations.
One is Gen. David Petraeus, who boldly changed tactics from hunkering down, plus occasional sallies, to sustained offensive operations. “Clear and hold” seems to be working quite well, extending the space in which coalition and Iraqi forces have dislodged the opposition while assuring security for the population. Moreover, the surge signaled that the United States was here to stay—a power factor to be reckoned with.
The second factor is the new politics. That shift is perhaps even more profound. Briefly, the United States did the only right thing in a civil-war setting: It began to protect and deter both sides instead of acting, as post-2003, as the handmaiden of Shiite power while de-Baathifying and “de-Sunnifying” the country.
Faced with the loss of their age-old supremacy (and their livelihood), why wouldn’t the Sunnis and Baathists have fought as desperately as they did? And have done so even in cahoots with al-Qaida, et al.? In the last two years, the United States has acted in a more evenhanded way. Essentially, it dispatched two messages. To the Sunnis: You are not alone. To the Shiites: Do not exploit your numerical superiority for wholesale expulsion and slaughter.
Add to this political shift the reintegration of Baathists, who were ruthlessly purged by the American viceroy, L. Paul Bremer. They were handed pensions and jobs and were reinvited into the armed forces. The flow of oil money to the Sunni provinces turned the disenfranchised into stakeholders. Thus, physical reassurance went hand-in-glove with promises of a decent economic future.
Finally, there is the isolation of al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists. This is not an American achievement but the result of untold brutality and bloodshed on the part of those who would turn Iraq into a global battlefield against the “Great Satan.” Instead, they ended up not expelling the United States but terrorizing and alienating the locals. This was not the way to win the hearts and minds of those Iraqis who were supposed to deliver shelter, bases, and support.
So in the fifth year of the war, the tide began to turn, albeit for reasons that are not exactly fortuitous. Maybe, five years from now, we will be able to look back and point to Iraq as the first successful counterinsurgency war since the British bested the Malay rebels in the 1950s (though after 12 long years).
Still, “Where did we get it wrong?” remains a valid and compelling question. Though as a realist, I felt queasy about the “democratic peace theory” behind the war (“only despots make war, while democracies are inherently pacific”), I hesitantly thought, Why not? Maybe the fall of this horrifying regime would serve as an example to all the other despotisms in the neighborhood.
Alas, democracy in one country is not the antidote to the enormous political pathologies of the Middle East, nor should anybody have expected such a miraculous transformation. Even less so, given the cavalier approach of the Bushies and their Pollyanna-ish belief in the ease of regime transformation: We’ll topple Saddam, hand over power to a friendly like Ahmad Chalabi, and leave. This is not how West Germany and Japan, where U.S. troops are present to this day, were democratized.
The lesson is stark: If you don’t will the means, don’t will the end. To this Kantianism, let us add pure homily: Look before you leap. The tragedy of American power in the Middle East, the most critical arena of world politics, is that the United States ended up working as the handmaiden of Iranian ambitions.
By destroying Saddam’s armies, the United States flattened the strongest bulwark against Iranian expansion. By empowering the Shiites, it opened the way to an ideological alliance between Najaf and Qum, the two centers of the faith on either side of the Iraq-Iran border. And by entangling itself in an open-ended war in Iraq, the United States squandered precisely those military assets that would have kept Iran in awe. Would the Ahmadinejad regime grasp so boldly for nuclear weapons if U.S. power and credibility were still intact?
So in the business of regime transformation, “Look before you leap” translates into: “Democracy may be good; strategic stability is better.” It advises future American leaders to worry about power first and about goodness as a byproduct. This is the counsel not of cynicism but of wisdom. If Germany and Japan have anything to teach, it is that security (within and without) must come first if democracy is to come later.