I’ve been surprised by the lack of effort on the part of those who backed the Iraq War to defend it. They were unusually quiet as the 10th anniversary of the war came and went, as if in a defensive crouch while the “what a disastrous war” crowd had the field. It is, I am afraid, part of a generic failure on the part of national security hawks to get out from the think tanks and beyond the comfy confines of the right-wing cocoon to make the case to non-defense gurus for their positions. (The strong exception to this phenomenon has been Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who regularly explains the costs and benefits of military spending, international engagement, etc.)
Instead, there has been far too much grumbling about squeamish pols and contempt for war-weariness. The pundits who most strenuously backed the war by and large have not held conferences, conducted symposia, written cover stories or authored books to defend their views. (They stand in contrast to a few Bush administration figures, especially Donald Rumsfeld and VP Dick Cheney.) The passivity is curious. And it is worth noting the failure to rebut its harshest critics (“Bush lied, people died”) began during the Bush administration when for whatever reason the administration generally chose not to defend itself from allegations of mendacity.
My colleague Jackson Diehl does exactly what conservatives supportive of the war should have been doing for a couple of years, when he traces the comparison between military action in Iraq and complete inaction. His comparison is to Syria:
With 70,000 killed in just two years, Syria is producing fatalities at twice the rate of Iraq after the U.S. invasion; with 1.1 million people having fled to neighboring countries and 3 million expected by the end of this year. Syria is on course to produce 50 percent more refugees than Iraq after 2003.
In Iraq, the United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat. In Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is steadily gaining strength — and prompting, across the border, a revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Obama administration’s hands-off approach offers no means for checking this menace or for preventing al-Qaeda from eventually gaining control over chemical and biological weapons.
The Iraq war prompted low-level meddling by Iran, Syria and other neighbors but otherwise left the surrounding region unscathed, thanks to the U.S. presence. Syria’s unchecked carnage is spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq, and it threatens U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan. Iran, Persian Gulf states and other neighbors are pouring in weapons and, in some cases, fighting units.
Of course the failure to maintain troops in Iraq threatens those gains, but that is a failure of the opponents of the Iraq War and the general ineptitude of the Obama administration.
Moreover, the continued presence of Saddam Hussein — a human rights criminal, a willing user of chemical weapons and a supporter of terrorism — would have carried a high cost and substantial risk to the region that are hard to calculate. If he remained would he now be in a deadly race with Iran for nuclear supremacy for the area? What would his relationship be with terrorists in Gaza, North Africa and elsewhere? These sorts of questions are guess-work at best.
The argument as to whether the Iraq War was “worth it” is ultimately a subjective one — how does one even go about trying to weigh the import of more than 4,400 dead Americans, each of whose death is a horror and personal tragedy for a network of family, friends and colleagues? (By comparison the Vietnam War took 58,000 and Korea over 36,000.) And it is premature, as the future of Iraq is still in doubt. But however one comes out on that calculus, it nevertheless should behoove former Bush officials and those who rallied support for the war to do more than offer one- or two-line quotes reaffirming their convictions.
Evaluating the results of the war is understandably intertwined with the international intelligence failure at the onset regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the tactical failures before the surge achieved our aims. That, however, is all the more reason to evaluate the results of the war and extract the lessons learned. Let’s hope the most forceful advocates of the war and those who bucked public opinion in backing the surge provide some serious analysis and historically sound accounts of the war. Otherwise, the country will be much more inclined to reflexively choose inaction — and the results will be many more Syria-like debacles.