The Iraq War began 10 years ago last Wednesday. It cost 4,487 American lives and about $1 trillion, and caused sharp divisions among Americans. Was it worth it?
"From today's vantage point, unfortunately, the answer looks increasingly to be 'no,'" said Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations.
He was referring to the re-emergence of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia since President Barack Obama withdrew (essentially all) U.S. troops in 2011, and to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's drift toward Iran since then.
He is "unrepentant" about supporting the war, but wouldn't have if he knew then that Saddam Hussein's regime did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Boot said.
"While I am a firm believer in democracy promotion, I don't believe that its spread justifies exposing our soldiers to danger unless there is an overriding threat to our own security," he said.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Boot about that. But even if I'd known then Saddam was bluffing about WMD, I still would have supported going to war against him. Saddam was the most powerful ruler in the Arab world, an implacable enemy of the United States who provided extensive support to Islamist terror groups, captured Iraqi documents make clear. He'd plotted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush and had murdered tens of thousands of his own people.
In the aftermath of 9/11, our enemies were emboldened by the belief the United States was a paper tiger. It was vital to disabuse them of that notion.
Iraq has the largest population of any genuinely Arab country. Iraqis are the best educated Arabs (though this is damning with faint praise). Iraq is the only Arab country with both oil and water. Iraq borders on Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It is by far the most geostrategically important Arab country. If an anti-American regime there could be replaced by a pro-Western government ...
Baghdad fell April 9. We'd won the war with remarkable speed, and astonishingly few casualties. Then -- until the troop surge that began in 2007 -- we set about losing the peace.
It didn't have to be that way. What if, after toppling Saddam's regime, we'd put in charge those Iraqis we considered least objectionable, and left? This is essentially what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had in mind.
Instead we stayed, to engage in "nation-building." I've railed against "nation-building" in Afghanistan and Vietnam. I'm less opposed to attempting it in Iraq, because both the payoff for success and the prospects for it were so much greater.
But nation-building is still a bad idea, which we compounded by a legion of mistakes, the worst being creation of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which made us seem to many in and outside of Iraq to be an imperial, occupying power, and abolition of the Iraqi army, the only organization which could have kept order.
If we'd left when we should have, the sectarian violence we see in Iraq now almost certainly would have begun sooner. But Saddam would still be gone. We'd have given our remaining enemies a graphic demonstration of American military power. No one could (credibly) accuse us of being imperialists. We'd have saved thousands of lives and a helluva lot of money.
Iraq became a quagmire. But it was a quagmire for al-Qaida, too. Thousands of Islamists from all over the Middle East flocked to fight us in Iraq -- and we killed them there. If they were still alive and kicking, how much more of a threat might al-Qaida be today?
Despite the odds against nation-building, compounded by our bumbling, at the end of the troop surge, it looked as if we had pulled it off. The situation has deteriorated markedly on President Obama's watch, but this wasn't inevitable. And -- both from the standpoint of our security and that of the well being of the Iraqi people -- it's still a lot better than when Saddam was in power.
More to the point: both we and the Iraqis are better off than we'd be if Saddam were still in power. In 2003, Saddam didn't have the WMD the CIA and every other Western intelligence agency thought he had because UN sanctions were more effective than we realized. But sanctions were weakening. Had Saddam been left unmolested, he'd almost certainly have WMD -- including nukes -- now.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. email@example.com, 412-263-1476.