Thanks to the brave and talented men and women in uniform, the foresight of Senator McCain and President Bush and the Anbar Awakening, the United States has snatched victory from the jaws of almost sure defeat in Iraq. Back in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that we would have come this far.
Nonetheless, Iraq remains an intellectual quagmire.
I fully supported the invasion -- as did most Americans -- in March 2003. We were assured by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein possessed and intended to use weapons of mass destruction, and that he had significant ties to al Qaeda. The fact that Saddam was a brutal dictator who had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people and had ties to Palestinian suicide bombers made the decision a no-brainer at the time. But once you remove the primary rationale for going to war -- the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and virtually all reported ties between Saddam and al Qaeda were debunked -- whether war was the right decision becomes a legitimate question.
If, as neoconservatives believe, we were right to invade Iraq solely because Saddam allegedly possessed nuclear weapons, then by extension, we should have invaded North Korea and Iran first. North Korea has actually tested a nuclear warhead, and Iran has openly stated that it intends to become a nuclear power, and is perhaps five years away from having a nuclear arsenal. Compounding this with Iran's overt financing of Hezbollah -- based on the logic of Wolfowitz, Kristol and others -- we should have gone to war against Iran yesterday.
The problem with the logic of "America as nuclear watchdog" is that Iraq stretched our military amazingly thin, and the lessons of 2005-2007 demonstrate that America simply can't fully function if it fights wars in two different theaters. This "America as nuclear watchdog" idea fails to deal with the reality that unlike China, the United States doesn't have an endless supply of tropps -- and additionally, fails to take into account the fact that war is extraordinarily expensive. Arguably, from 2005-2007, America was losing both wars it was fighting. While it might be nice to pound the table in think tanks and at CPAC and cry for war against the Iranian mullahs, the U.S. has never in its history tried to fight multiple wars at once.
Additionally, the Bush administration had virtually no plan for ultimate victory after Saddam was toppled. David Petraeus might have predicted that we needed a counterinsurgency strategy in December 2003, but no one had heard of him until years later. Wars have traditionally wrought unintended, unexpected consequences, and Iraq was no exception. Because the Bush administration expected Saddam's troops to fight for months, there was little or no plan in place once "victory" was achieved and the country was under American control.
There is another -- revisionist -- school of thought that posits that, while Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons, he was still a despicable tyrant, and therefore the invasion was justified anyway. The obvious problem with the logic of "America as human rights policeman" is that while Saddam was a despot, there are many other unsavory characters around the globe -- not only Kim Jong Il in North Korea and Ahmadenijhad in Iran, but Lukashenka in Belarus, Qaddafi in Libya and the entire regime in Sudan. By this logic of "America as human rights policeman," we should have intervened in Darfur five years ago.
Additionally, what the Iraq war should impress upon us is the idea of "us vs. them" -- the Bush Doctrine that you're either with us, or with "the terrorists" -- has serious limitations. While Saddam Hussein no doubt meant Israel harm, it is quite a stretch to say that he intended to inflict damage on the U.S. mainland, or was even concerned with the U.S. at all. There is no evidence to support this, or support the idea that he had anything to do with 9/11. Part of the folly of the brand of neoconservatism espoused by the Bush administration is the proclivity to see the enemy as a single homogenous entity -- instead of very loose coalitions of shadowy networks, as it is. In Afghanistan, for instance, I'd expect that most conservatives don't understand that we are actually fighting three enemies -- al Qaeda, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and the Taliban of Pakistan. These are three completely separate entities who although share a common objective, don't necessarily work in concert. Where is the line between overt state financing of terror -- as Iran does with Hezbollah, or as the Taliban did with al Qaeda pre-9/11, and what Qaddafi does in Libya?
Furthermore, extending the "us vs. them" analogy further, Russia has consulted with Iran about building a nuclear reactor. By the logic of the Bush Doctrine, Russia is "with the terrorists," because it is overtly aiding a state government that has clear ties to terrorist groups. Does this mean that we should launch a full-scale attack on Moscow tomorrow? The limitations of this mindset are obvious.
Perhaps my opinion of the Iraq war would be better had it not been so badly mismanaged. Check out this incredible exchange from Meet the Press way back in August 2003, when John McCain and Joe Biden confronted and addressed the problems that would face the United States if the administration refused to go all-in on Iraq. There is no doubt that if McCain was in charge, we would have left in victory long ago, with thousands of fewer lives lost. Because the Bush administration didn't come to grips with the realities on the ground until, literally, years later -- and this almost cost him the presidency in 2004, by the way -- we sustained thousands more casualties than were necessary. Bush as commander in chief deserves great credit for standing up and ordering the troop surge of 2007, but his policies arguably created the mess in the first place. Only time will tell whether Iraq will be a stain on Bush's legacy.
Finally, what encapsulation of Iraq would be complete without a tip of the hat to this site's hero, John McCain? In the middle of 2007, as casualties mounted in Iraq and his prospects for the presidency dimmed, McCain took a trip to Iraq. He came back reinvigorated, inspired by the men and women he met in uniform, and by the glimmers of progress on the ground. Immediately thereafter, he launched his famous "No Surrender" tour, gathering Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and his old POW buddies back together and riding around the country talking about the necessity of a troop surge in Iraq. When journalists pointed out that the vast majority of Americans -- even many Republicans -- wanted to leave Iraq tomorrow, and that his prospects for the presidency hinged entirely on a very unpopular idea, McCain famously replied, "I'd rather lose an election than lose a war."
The Bush administration, to its credit, bought into McCain's idea of a troop surge -- which was bolstered by the endorsement of America's brilliant new commander, David Petraeus -- and the tide began to turn near the end of 2007. Simultaneously, McCain received new political life and, of course, had sewn up the Republican nomination by March 2008. The only reason Iraq was not an election year issue in the 2008 presidential election was, as Michael Gerson so astutely pointed out, in large part because McCain's strategy worked so well that the next president didn't have to make a tough decision.
To paraphrase Gerson, Obama was left was a pleasing paradox -- the successes of a strategy he opposed paved his way to the presidency; and McCain was left with a cold comfort -- in an odd twist of fate, he lost an election, in large part, because the war he helped win became a non-issue.