A Measure of Pride

Friday, June 27, 2008
“I am the same man and do not alter; it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt, and waited for misfortune to repent of it. . . . But you must not be seduced by citizens like these nor be angry with me ­—who, if I voted for war, only did as you did yourselves.”
Pericles, quoted in The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Wars have never been easy to defend. Even in “heroic” cultures, men and women applauded wars, then grew weary of them. This Iraq war, too, was once a popular war. It was authorized and launched in the shadow of 9/11. During the five long years that America has been on the ground in Iraq, the war was increasingly forced to stand alone.

At a perilous moment in early 2007, when the project was in the wind and reeling, the leader who launched this war doubled down and bought time. The polls —and this might be the war most endlessly measured by pollsters—tell us that two out of five Americans are now willing to stick with this endeavor.

The tipping point came with the “surge,” the new policy marked by stoicism and an acceptance of the burdens of this war. For once, there was no promise of easy success. “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved,” President Bush said when he announced the surge. “There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.”

In Iraq, America was surrounded by enemies who were sure from the start that the great foreign power was destined to fail. They could not be given the satisfaction of a hasty American retreat. The stakes had grown; we were under the gaze of a population with a keen eye for the weakness of strangers. It was apt and proper that the leader who launched this war did not give up on it.

Speaking in Nashville to the convention of National Religious Broadcasters on March 11, 2008, President Bush defended the war in Iraq yet again: “The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision at this point in my presidency; and it will forever be the right decision. ”

Bush made freedom in Arab-Islamic lands his cause. He rejected laments that Arabs do not possess a freedom gene and that they are fated to tyranny. “The liberty we value is not ours alone,” he told the Nashville convention. “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to all humanity.”

Radical Arabs attacked America on 9/11, and a war of deterrence to be waged against Arab radicalism. Baghdad was the proper return address.

This has been Bush’s wager ever since the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ran aground and the war and its sacrifices had to be defended and fortified. Grant the president his due; he upheld his belief that liberty can stick on Iraqi and Arab soil, in the face of great doubts and misgivings.

In the five years that the United States has been in Iraq, this drawn-out war has seemed like a fight between American power and the laws of gravity. Sectarianism tested our souls and our patience; the fury in the region around Iraq was bottomless. Its misfits found their way onto Iraqi soil. We wanted a new life for that country, but there were sectarian hatreds beyond our comprehension.

For our part, we did not always fight this war wisely and skillfully. It took us a while to get the right commanders and envoys. We did not have the linguists we needed, for the 1990s had not prepared us for wars of ideology and culture. Even the bureaucracy itself —the State Department, the CIA—was full of people who doubted the wisdom of this war and second-guessed it at every turn. Some of the very people dispatched to Baghdad were no friends of this project.

Still, five years on, this endeavor in Iraq is taking hold. The U.S. military was invariably the great corrector. In their stoic acceptance of the mission given them and in the tender mercies they showed Iraqis on a daily basis, our soldiers held out the example of benevolent rule. (In extended travel in and out of Iraq over the past five years, I heard little talk of Abu Ghraib. The people of Iraq understood that Charles Graner and Lynndie England were psychopaths at odds with U.S. military norms.)

During those five years, the scaffolding of the war came under steady assault. People said that there was no connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam, that no “smoking gun” had been discovered, and that the invasion of Iraq had turned that country into a breeding ground of jihadists.

But those looking for that smoking gun did not understand that the distinction between secular and religious terror in that Arab landscape was a distinction without a difference. The impulse that took the United States from Kabul to Baghdad was a correct one. Ra ­­­­­­­­dical Arabs attacked America on 9/11, and a war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism.

We have not reinvented Iraq, that old, burdened country, but this is the first chance Iraqis have had to emerge from a history of plunder and despotism.

Baghdad was the proper return address, as a notice was served on the purveyors of terror that a price would be paid by those who aid and abet it. It was Saddam Hussein ’s choice—and fate—that he would not duck and stay out of harm’s way in the aftermath of 9/11. We have not fully repaired the ways of the radicals in the intervening years. But the spectacle of the dictator ’s defeat and the sight of him being sent to the gallows have worked wonders on the temper of the Arab street.

So we did not turn Baghdad into a democratic city on a hill, and we learned that dismantling the Sunni tyranny would leave the Arab world ’s Shiite stepchildren with primacy in Iraq. A better country has nonetheless risen, midwifed by this American war. It is not a flawless democracy. But compare it to the prison it was under Saddam, the tyranny next door in Damascus, and the norms of the region, and we can take a measure of pride in what America has brought forth in Baghdad.

This is not a Shiite state that we uphold. True, the Shiite majority was emancipated from a long history of fear and servitude, but Iraq ’s Shiites have told us in every way they can that their country is not a “sister republic” of the Persian theocracy to their east. If anything, the custodians of political power in Iraq have signaled their long-term intentions: an extended U.S. presence in their midst and shoring up an oil state in the orbit of American power.

There has been design and skill in recent U.S. endeavors. The Sunnis had all but wrecked their chances in the new order. The American strategy in the year behind us worked to cushion the Sunni defeat. The United States now sustains a large force of “volunteers” drawn mainly from the Sunni community. This has not met with the approval of the Shiite-led government, but the attempt to create a balance between the two communities has been both deliberate and wise.

In the same vein, U.S. power has given the Kurds protection and a historic chance in a neighborhood that had hitherto snuffed out all their dreams. But a message, too, has been sent to the Kurds. The condition of this protection is a politics of sobriety and a commitment to the federalism of Iraq. We have not reinvented that old, burdened country, but this war is the first chance Iraqis have had to emerge from a history of plunder and despotism.

Compare Iraq to the prison it was under Saddam and the tyranny next door in Damascus. We can take a measure of pride in what America has brought forth in Baghdad.

In the past five years, the passion has drained out of the war’s defenders and critics alike. Our soldiers and envoys remain there, but the public at home has moved on to other concerns. Still, the public is willing to grant this expedition time, and that ’s for the good. There is no taste in the United States for imperial burdens and acquisitions in distant lands. But Americans also know that the lands and sea lanes of the Persian Gulf are too vital to be left to mayhem and petty tyrants.