Did We Get Iraq Wrong?

I found Slate‘s Iraq mini-symposium very helpful in clarifying my own views on the state we’re in. To avoid boring you to tears (again), I’ll state, briefly, that

I think Jeffrey Goldberg and I are in roughly the same place. I say roughly because his last paragraph gave me pause.

But on my last trip to Iraq, four months ago, I learned that many of Saddam’s victims continue to see the invasion as a triumph of justice. The Kurds, who make up nearly 20 percent of Iraq, remain, by and large, quite pleased with the Anglo-American invasion, which removed from their collective neck a regime that did an excellent job over the years of murdering them.

Many of Saddam’s victims see the invasion this way, but, if we consider a large swathe of Iraqis to be among Saddam’s victims, I’m guessing most do not. And why don’t they? There’s the obvious matter of all the murder and mayhem that’s followed the invasion, but I also think there was a real lack of political maturity, I know this sounds inflammatory, on the part of Iraqis — a subject Kanan Makiya address in his mini-essay is right.

All of a sudden this raw, profoundly abused population, traumatized by decades of war, repression, uprisings, and brutal campaigns of social extermination, was handed the opportunity to build a nation from scratch. True, they were adept at learning the most arresting symbols of their re-entry into the world—the mobile phone and the satellite dish, for example. But it proved infinitely harder to get rid of the mistrust, fear, and unwillingness to take initiative or responsibility that was ingrained into a people by a whole way of survival in police-state conditions.

And I think this actually explains a lot about the modern Middle East, particularly the passivity, as awful as that sounds, of the Iranian population. Imagine if, as Makiya counseled, the Shia leadership had behaved somewhat more magnanimously over the past five years. Granted, this would be pretty damn difficult given Shia suffering at the hands of Saddam. But Iraq would look very different, I suspect, if we had seen a more conciliatory stance. This must sound like blaming the victim. I actually think calling for withdrawal is blaming the victim — let them shape up on their own time! Actually, we’ve accrued a moral obligation that goes well beyond increasing the number of Iraqi refugees we allow to settle in the United States.

Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, writes the most tart entry. I guess I don’t think of the invasion in quite the same terms, though he’s certainly right that the phony war was going on for a very long time.

Basically, I believe there are two positions on the invasion that have been vindicated. The first is the Michael Walzer position that has received so much criticism of late: tighten the vise on Saddam, keep the inspections going and escalate the military pressure while you do it.

The second is the Perry Anderson position, outlined in his brilliant essay, “Casuistries of Peace and War.” Every sentence is worth reading, but this passage is particularly powerful.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is a mockery of any principles of equality or justice – those who possess weapons of mass destruction insisting that everyone except themselves give them up, in the interests of humanity. If any states had a claim to such weapons, it would be small not large ones, since that would counterbalance the overweening power of the latter. In practice, as one would expect, such weapons have already spread, and so long as the big powers refuse to abandon theirs, there is no principled reason to oppose their possession by others. Kenneth Waltz, doyen of American international relations theory, an impeccably respectable source, long ago published a calm and detailed essay, which has never been refuted, entitled ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better’. It can be recommended. The idea that Iraq or North Korea should not be permitted such weapons, while those of Israel or white South Africa could be condoned, has no logical basis.

So what is the third position we are supposed to accept? It seems to be that it was blindingly obvious that Scott Ritter was right and German intelligence was wrong. Interesting.

Then there is the notion that the US never had the resources — the troop strength, first and foremost — to successfully pacify Iraq, a heavily urban country that would require at least as many troops per capita as, say, Bosnia. Given the success of the surge strategy (limited, to be sure, to lowering the temperature of a communal conflict and reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad), it seems a sharp increase shortly after the invasion would have made a difference, not to mention, well, general competence. But perhaps not. Makiya identified the crucial variable, and I tend to think the relative magnanimity of Shia Iraqis was essentially unknowable.

I should mention Luke Mitchell’s excellent piece on Iraq, and the role of oil in the invasion and occupation. I tend to think it’s pretty obvious that we didn’t invade for oil — if anything, oil interests were pressing for detente with Saddam for obvious reasons, including some voices within the Bush Administration. But yes, part of the reason I think we need to stay is that Iraq is a key swing producer. It’s reason number 3 or 4, but it’s certainly in the top 5.