Back in September 2011, as the U.S. military involvement in Iraq was beginning to wind down, I wrote an epic review of the Iraq war and the persistent popular misconceptions about it. Coming in at about 6,000 words, The War in Iraq: Ten Myths remains the most complete overview of what I believe about the war, why I believe it was legally justified, and why I continued (and still continue) to believe it was the right thing to do. As I explained there, and in many other posts before it, that doesn’t mean I always agreed with the way we went about things in Iraq. We made many strategic errors . . . some that we can only see now with 20/20 hindsight, but far too many that we should have seen ahead of time.
The insistence that Iraq remain intact and that its colonial-era borders were non-negotiable is one of the most obvious mistakes. Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was the only thing holding Iraq’s various ethnic and religious groups together. There was no reason to try to force them to stay together after the dictator was gone. We should have enlisted the help of Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey—to assist in the war effort, serve as the primary occupiers of the areas most ethnically linked to themselves, and possibly annex those territories if approved by its people in an open, internationally-monitored referendum. Much of the post-war violence and terrorism in Iraq could have been held in-check by occupiers that were seen as local ‘friendlies’ and coreligionists, rather than as infidel crusaders from America and Europe. Instead, these neighboring countries stood quietly on the sidelines or, worse, actively encouraged sectarian violence. After all, they knew it would be our problem, not theirs.
Despite some terrible missteps along the way, we did accomplish our goals, and the time was right for us to leave. I supported President Barack Obama’s (D) withdrawal plans. Many conservatives criticized the president for his intention to pull our troops out of Iraq, but they have failed to put forth any reasonable alternative other than a continuing occupation into the indefinite future. At some point, the people of Iraq have to stand up (or fall) for themselves. As I wrote in a short piece from December 2009, We Can’t Stay Forever:
Setting withdrawal dates in [Iraq and Afghanistan] will give the bad guys a ‘hold out’ date, but it will force their governments and peoples to overcome their sectarian squabbles and begin behaving like civilized adults before that date too. If they don’t, well, the mess they end up with will be one of their own making, not ours.
My hope, of course, is that [both countries] become successful, stable, productive members of the community of nations. But whether or not that happens is more in their hands than ours. It’s time that we begin to disengage—carefully and responsibly—and it is past time for the peoples of these two nations to take control of their own destinies. They may choose a productive future, or a return to the despotism of the past. We can rest easy knowing that we gave two peoples an opportunity to emerge from tyranny, and that if they fail to seize the chance they have nobody to blame but themselves.
I am not happy that Iraq is spiraling into a full-on civil war . . . but I am perplexed by those who would blame the United States for it, or point to it as evidence that we were wrong to topple Hussein. Did the people of Iraq not deserve the chance to choose their own destiny? Is wanton death and destruction at the hands of a mad dictator somehow morally preferable to wanton death and destruction in war?
We, at great cost, gave Iraq a chance . . . and we knew all along that there was a risk that they would squander it. So, apparently, they have. But that changes nothing about what we did, why we did it, whether it was justified, and whether it was right. Could we have done a better job of setting Iraq up for success? Yes. But do we bear responsibility for their failure embrace and nourish their new freedoms? Do we bear responsibility for sectarian squabbles that existed long before Saddam Hussein, let alone the war? Of course not. To paraphrase from a line attributed to Benjamin Franklin, we gave the people of Iraq a republic . . . but it was their job to keep it.