Defeating Saddam took 19 years too long.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Two decades later, on Aug. 18, 2010, the U.S. withdrew its last combat brigade from Iraq. Throughout those years U.S. military operations went under a variety of names—including Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War in Iraq—but over time they will be seen as part of an unbroken thread.
It ought to be called the Twenty Years’ War. That was probably 19 years too long.
It matters what we call our wars, lest we fail to understand them—and lest we repeat them, because we failed to understand. When the Great War came to be spoken of as “the war to end all wars” (a line variously attributed to David Lloyd George, H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson) it underscored how ill-prepared that generation was to prevent the next great conflict.
Similarly in Iraq. In 1991, the first Bush administration failed to understand that its war was not against what Saddam had done in Kuwait. It was against Saddam himself, his regime, and the forces of Arab radicalism he typified and championed. Desert Storm, it turned out, proved an apt name for a military operation that had been blinded to its own real purposes.
Thus Kuwait was liberated but Saddam stayed on for another 12 years, supposedly—as Madeleine Albright notoriously put it—”in a box.” In that box, he killed tens of thousands of Iraq’s Shiites, caused a humanitarian crisis among the Kurds, attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush, profited from a sanctions regime that otherwise starved his own people, compelled a “no-fly zone” that cost the U.S. $1 billion a year to police, defied more than a dozen U.N. sanctions, corrupted the U.N. Secretariat, evicted U.N. weapons inspectors and gave cash prizes to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
All this was war by another name, which meant that when the question of invading Iraq arose after 9/11, the choice was not between war and peace. Rather, as former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote in these pages at the time, it was “between sustaining a military effort designed to contain Saddam Hussein and a military effort designed to replace him.” For Mr. Kerrey, “the case for the second choice [was] overwhelming.”
It says something that the invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom—a better approximation of its aims than the ill-founded claims about WMD that nearly proved the war’s political undoing. Still, war aims are not only what a nation fights for, which, as Lincoln discovered, could change with the course of war. War aims are also about what a nation fights against.
In that sense, Iraq was invaded so that Saddam and his henchmen, Iraq’s ultimate weapons of mass destruction, would hang. To hang them meant serving the interests of justice, and satisfying a justified impulse for revenge. It also meant making an example of a uniquely aggressive Arab tyrant who thought he could defy and manipulate the West with impunity.
One of the more popular raps against the war is that it discredited the United States and the exercise of American power. That’s unlikely, since the world has a way of constantly re-discovering the benefits of that power: Think of the Balkans in the 1990s, or East Asia today in the face of China’s assertiveness.
What the war did accomplish was to discredit a cult-of-personality style of Arab politics pioneered in the 1950s by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. (His pharaonic successor, Hosni Mubarak, is on the way out.) More, the war led to what has been called “the eclipse of the Arab world.” Today the world’s leading Muslim states—Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey—are all non-Arab. Not since the 1930s have the Arabs counted geopolitically for so little.
Ironically, this eclipse has somewhat dimmed the broader significance of Iraq’s democracy, at least for the time being. The U.S. has bequeathed Iraqis exactly what the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia bequeathed Americans: A republic, if they can keep it. If they do, it could be a Muslim model of democratic governance and ethnic and sectarian pluralism. It may be achievement enough to have an Iraqi government that threatens neither its own people nor its neighbors, and for the rest of the Arabs to be on their guard against future Saddams.
For the U.S., the achievement would be greater if it led to a military and diplomatic alliance with Baghdad as a counterweight to Iran. But that depends on whether the Obama administration chooses to interpret the war as a complete misadventure or as a potentially fruitful opportunity.
One thing is clear: The Twenty Years’ War lasted as long as it did because the first Bush administration failed to finish it when it could, and because the Clinton administration pretended it wasn’t happening. Should we now draw the lesson that hesitation and delay are the best policy? Or that wars are best fought swiftly to their necessary conclusion? The former conclusion did not ultimately spare us the war. The latter would have spared us one of 20 years.
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal