We ought to celebrate the day we win wars, not just remember the days they started. The Iraq war began on March 20, 2003, and was won several years later--long before the last U.S. troops left on Dec. 18, 2011. But President Barack Obama, who built his national career on opposition to the war, cannot bring himself to utter the word “victory.” The media, following his lead, observe the beginning but not the end of the Iraq war.
Initially, I opposed the war. On Sep. 11, 2002, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I sat in a trendy Cape Town café with a fellow American, holding forth on the frustrating idiocy of our Middle East strategy. Here we we go again, I remember saying, getting ready to attack an already-isolated regime while ignoring the greater threat of Iran next door and saying next to nothing about the ideological poison being spread by our Saudi allies.
But I slowly changed my mind, and by early 2003 I decided I supported the war--some time after Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the UN Security Council with what he said was evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I was not moved by his arguments--which turned out to be incorrect--but by the European and Arab reactions. The French were opposed to war regardless; the Iraqis and Syrians were both defiant.
I felt that the legitimacy of the international system was at stake. If the UN could not enforce dozens of binding resolutions against a tyrannical dictatorship that had already attacked its neighbors and its own citizens, then there was no point to international law or international institutions. The consequences of backing down also meant American power would be severely diminished, with consequences for our security and freedom.
The anti-war movement also repulsed me. I was seeing the worst of it--in South Africa, where the Anglophone elite’s long-standing resentment of American power combined with radical anti-Americanism in the local Muslim community and among the cadres of the far-left ruling party. I found the anti-war activists’ refusal to criticize Saddam Hussein particularly troubling. My sentiment was not pro-war as much as it was anti-anti-war.
Once I backed the war, I began to interpret media coverage of events quite differently than I had before. It was tough to take seriously the earnest assurances by the BBC, for example, that the coalition forces would soon bog down on the road to Baghdad, that their quick victories only foreshadowed tough battles ahead. (The BBC’s left-wing bias in war coverage was later the target of an official inquiry by the British Parliament.)
Though weapons for mass destruction were never found, the case for democracy began to seem even more compelling as an important justification for removing Saddam and rebuilding the society he had destroyed. President George W. Bush gave one of the most important speeches of his career in November 2003, making the case for liberty and democracy--not just for their own sake, but as foundations for security and peace.
But governing post-war Iraq proved a nearly impossible challenge. As sectarian violence increased, and Al Qaeda terrorists flooded across Iraq’s porous borders, it seemed plain that the coalition forces were too small to provide the security that was needed. In 2007, when President Bush finally proposed a surge of U.S. troops, he met opposition from Democrats and even from the military--yet he persevered, and he was proven correct.
The fact that I supported a surge--many months before Bush had formally proposed one--led me to realize that there was no longer any place for me in the Democratic Party. The party’s anti-war wing was ascendant, having defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary for U.S. Senate in 2006. I could not persuade my friends on the left that leaving Iraq precipitously would be a humanitarian disaster. They did not care.
That anti-war wing was silent in 2011, when President Obama ordered U.S. forces to attack Libya, on far flimsier grounds than had existed for the Iraq War. The Libya war (which I also supported) had UN Security Council approval and Arab League sanction, but the president did not bother to consult Congress or state a clear military objective. The awful Gadhafi regime had at least given up its (real) weapons of mass destruction.
In effect, the left’s opposition to the Iraq War was a fraud--a dangerous one, fueled by partisan hatred for the Bush administration rather than any real alternative principle. I was glad to have escaped that bubble--but it did cost me several friendships. I had been close, for example, to many Muslim friends even throughout the second intifada and the aftermath of 9/11. The Iraq War strained those friendships to the point of near-silence.
The Cedar Revolution of 2005 in Lebanon, the Green Revolution of 2009 in Iran, and the Arab Spring of 2011 are all indirect outcomes of the Iraq War. Conservatives often criticize President Obama’s handling of these events--and with good reason, since his general approach was to undermine pro-American regimes and support illiberal new regimes. But I still feel the fall of tyrants was, overall, a positive result of the Iraq War.
It is difficult to imagine a stable and secure Middle East without greater freedom, both economic and political. Democracy is nearly impossible without a culture of liberty--and without a middle-class level of income, as Fareed Zakariah has pointed out. The Arab world has neither. Iran has the latter, at least, and a population that desires to be rid of their oppressive regime. Regime change might enjoy better prospects there than Iraq.
What is troubling is that as victory was secured in Iraq, and change was possible in Iran, the Obama administration turned away. The Republican Party, which continues to suffer politically for the risks the Bush administration took in Iraq, also seems less interested in global leadership. Treating the 10th anniversary of Iraq as a solemn day of regret reinforces that trend. We should remember it, but not at the cost of ignoring our victory.