Instead, what emerges from a careful reading of the months leading up to our invasion of Iraq is a picture of a long-standing threat which was gathering perilous momentum as it became increasingly clear that the sanctions regime was crumbling, and Saddam stood ready to burst from his "box." As Mr. Hengist's excellent series debunking assorted memes of the "anti-war" Left illustrates, a credible and unacceptable danger to our interests and citizens at home and abroad existed in the form of Saddam's regime, a threat which the apparatus of "international law" was showing no signs of meeting to any reasonable degree of satisfaction. Even in the absence of the expected WMD stockpiles, there is ample reason to conclude that Saddam had the intent and ability to reconstitute his unconventional weapons programs to the point that such stockpiles could be accumulated at a brisk pace, once he was free of international oversight. Now, I suppose you could set the bar for a "necessary" war anywhere you see fit, up to the point where an invading army is gathered at your borders. But in the wake of a watershed event like 9/11, it would be a very hard sell for anyone who had sifted the threat landscape of the time with a cool eye to depict OIF as a mere "war of choice."
So, we went in. With astonishing rapidity, American and Coalition Forces demolished Saddam's much-vaunted war machine (again), and the initial objective of removing Saddam as a threat to the US and to international security and stability was accomplished. So much has been written about how the ensuing post-invasion period was allowed to slip toward chaos, that I hardly know what to link. Many of these criticisms hold all-too much water. However, as Ralph Peters points out --with characteristic acerbic clarity-- this turbulent period did not so much suffer from a lack of planning (which Feith's book reveals to have been very extensive), but too broad an agenda:
In a classic example of how to get wartime goals wrong, our 2003 invasion of Iraq began as an attempt to be all things to all people: a campaign against weapons of mass destruction; an anti-terrorism effort; the removal of a malignant dictator in the interest of human rights; a commitment to unleash the yearning for democracy supposedly simmering in the Middle East; a move to guarantee oil supplies; and, for some, a proactive move in defense of Israel. It was inevitable that not all of these extremely ambitious goals could be achieved.
Part of Iraq’s tragedy is that, when the administration promised so much to so many different factions to get its war, it set itself up for a perception of failure, no matter how well things went (and, thanks to the administration’s own folly, things went far worse than necessary for almost four years). Had the administration set realistic goals, the perception of the results in Iraq — as well as our behavior once we reached Baghdad — might have been very different. Of course, the administration might not have gotten its war at all, had it failed to promise all things to all credulous people (among whom I must include myself.)
In fact, some of the administration’s professed goals were achieved: A murderous dictator and aggressor was toppled, and then, in a classic example of how the situation evolves unpredictably in wartime, al-Qaida, which had not had a presence in Iraq under Saddam, foolishly chose to declare Iraq the “central front” in its anti-Western jihad. At that point, the stakes changed profoundly, and an unintended, but certainly welcome, result of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a catastrophic strategic defeat for al-Qaida — near-annihilation on the battlefield and, even more vitally, the rejection of the terrorist organization’s vision by millions of Sunni Arabs who experienced its savagery first-hand.
The point is that the ultimate results in Iraq are not going to look much like those merrily proposed by administration supporters in early 2003. As a result, even tangible, critical successes on the ground encounter skepticism or outright dismissal. By promising far too much, the Bush administration gave its enemies, foreign and domestic, a gift that keeps on giving.
Peters' point is well-taken: in setting such far-ranging goals for Iraq, the US pretty much set itself up for some of those goals to fall short of the mark, and so to provide a bountiful board of red meat for critics of the Administration and of the US' use of military power. More basically, though, setting too broad an array of goals for any military campaign leaves little room for the unexpected. In the oft-quoted words of renowned Prussian strategist, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." While the initial rationale for invading Iraq was that of removing a dire threat, the success of that mission set the stage for the emergence of circumstances which were only dimly glimpsed (if at all) in the planning for OIF. For example the scope and organization of the insurgency which was able to coalesce around a number of pre-existing elements of Iraq under Saddam, its ability to spin rapidly up by capitalizing on a too-long period of post-war chaos and on the availability of plentiful ordnance, and its willingness to form alliances with foreign Jihadi factions were --to put it charitably-- not fully appreciated in the run-up to war.
OIF was a necessary war. Saddam simply could not be allowed to persist in his long-standing habits of Machiavellian maneuvering and outright aggression. However, as is so often the case, one necessity gave rise to a number of others. I suppose one could choose this as the locus of "choice," and propose that, once having unseated Saddam, we could have pulled up stakes and left the Iraqis to write the rest of their history on their own. The circumstances surrounding the Iraqi insurgency were not what the public believed it had signed on for, leading many to complain that the Administration was moving the goal posts. However, the advent of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was a development from which it would have been folly to walk away. Its goal of collapsing Iraq into a failed state, riven with sectarian civil war which would prevent the stabilization of any indigenous government with which we could live, created a whole new set of necessities. Fouad Ajami, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, reflected on this very shift in the initial conditions of our action in Iraq, and on the way critics have seized on that shift to cry shenanigans:
Nor is there anything unprecedented, or particularly dishonest, about the way the rationale for the war shifted when the hunt for weapons of mass destruction had run aground. True, the goal of a democratic Iraq – and the broader agenda of the war as a spearhead of "reform" in Arab and Muslim lands – emerged a year or so after the onset of the war. But the aims of practically every war always shift with the course of combat, and with historical circumstances. Need we recall that the abolition of slavery had not been an "original" war aim, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was, by Lincoln's own admission, a product of circumstances? A war for the Union had become a victory for abolitionism.
America had not been prepared for nation-building in Iraq; we had not known Iraq and Iraqis or understood the depth of Iraq's breakdown. But there was nothing so startling or unusual about the connection George W. Bush made between American security and the "reform" of the Arab condition. As America's pact with the Arab autocrats had hatched a monster, it was logical and prudent to look for a new way.
This Administration elected not to withdraw from Iraq as the insurgency raged and AQI visited its horrors on Iraqi civilians --as congressional Democrats repeatedly bleated that we should-- and instead used the occasion of these new developments to devise and execute a fundamental change in strategy. As a result of the COIN approach and its supporting surge in troops, AQI has been decimated (and there are indications that support for radicalism in the wider Muslim world may be showing signs of waning), the Sunni insurgency has been largely co-opted into the legitimate architecture of an increasingly inclusive Iraqi government, and there are very promising portents of a growing acceptance for the fledgling Iraqi state among its Arab neighbors, despite its continued affiliation with its American midwife. The latter cannot help but make the Mullahs of Iran sleep rather less well.
The circumstances which prompted us to take the Iraqi bull by the horns could still be seen by some as having constituted a "choice." There are some for whom the very fact of war represents a failure, whatever the situation. The best I can say about such a philosophical position is that it fails to take into account the exigencies of living in a world at least partially populated with people who do not share it. Confronted with the reality of a house on fire, calling the decision to fight the flames a "choice" signals nothing but an over-reliance on abstractions. In toppling Saddam, we addressed one set of necessities. In belatedly but decisively adapting to the ensuing necessities eventuated by that decision, we have achieved goals which even our initially over-optimistic and broad menu of aims did not anticipate.
I choose to call that a net gain.
UPDATE: 6/12/2008. Fixed link to Pew survey on Muslim attitudes toward extremism to reflect more recent research.