Iraq War Can No Longer Be an Excuse for Inaction


A coup in Yemen, less than a year after President Barack Obama pledged to protect that country’s government, and a few months after he cited Yemen as a foreign policy success. New hostages–this time, Japanese–announced by ISIS, shown kneeling in silent horror as their captors demand ransom. An Iranian general near the Israeli border, killed by an airstrike that exposes the extent of Tehran’s ambitions. Boko Haram slaughtering thousands in Africa. Jews leaving France in fear.

Those are just a few examples of how the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, has spun out of control.

Much of the chaos would have happened regardless of what the United States did, or did not, do. It is the result of a failed encounter with modernity going back to the nineteenth century. But we have made things worse, not just by invading (the common leftist refrain), but also by leaving, by abdicating–and not for the first time–when we can and must play a leadership role.

For six years, President Barack Obama has had one consistent theme in his foreign policy agenda: to undo everything that George W. Bush did. He has pursued an argument with history, against the Iraq War in particular.

Yet just as his attack on Libya, which was not followed up by any serious rebuilding effort, facilitated the spread of Islamist terror across Africa, his hasty withdrawal from Iraq allowed ISIS to emerge, and allowed Iran to build its regional power, in Syria and elsewhere.

Terror has become a cancer that has metastasized. With uncertain leadership in the Washington, there is a risk that by the time we find a leader willing to take up the fight, it may be too hard to win.

The left blames Bush, and the Iraq War, for the chaos, arguing that a stable dictatorship under Saddam (however brutal) would have been better than what we are living with now. That is false, not only because Saddam was the cause of much chaos but also because Iraq was stable by 2009.

But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the left is correct. To borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton: What difference, at this point, does it make?

There was a good case to be made in the 1930s that the Treaty of Versailles had been to blame for the rise of Nazi Germany–that its terms were onerous and humiliating, that it had triggered a fascist backlash, and that the allies had made a serious mistake. In the end, right or wrong, the world had to muster the strength to fight back and win.

The Iraq War is a close parallel. It may have been a serious mistake–albeit, arguably, one made for the right reasons. (Any reasonable look at the history must conclude that those who pushed for war did so because they believed, reasonably, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and knew they bore a political responsibility for keeping America safe.)

Regardless, we cannot dwell on that mistake so obsessively that we fail to act–as we did in the 1930s–to stop a new threat.