Christopher Hitchens isn’t backing down from his support of the war four years after it began. I’m in his camp on this one: the central question we have to ask is whether we’d be better off had the war never happened. I rather doubt that we would.
The Duelfer Report made it clear that the sanctions regime in Iraq was collapsing:
Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability—in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks—but he intended to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare (CW) capabilities.
We now know that the Iranians are well on their way to developing nuclear weapons. It is beyond question that Saddam would have seen this as a direct threat against his regime, and would have done the same in order to counter that threat. The threat of an arms race in the Middle East is already bad enough — to have two unstable regimes with a long history of bloody conflict both pursuing nuclear technologies is one of the major threats that the war was designed to forestall.
It does not seem likely that Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime would have collapsed organically. His military could not withstand a US onslaught, but it was more than enough to prevent any internal opposition from coalescing. We consider the number of Iraqi lives lost in the post-war period to be great, but it is quite likely that the death toll under Saddam would have been greater. It is still uncertain just what the human toll of the Hussein regime really was — although it likely comes close to the millions, and that is not considering the brutality of the Iran/Iraq War.
Even if the Hussein regime did collapse on its own, the only thing holding Iraq together now is the presence of US troops and trained Iraqi units who can keep the peace. Without those factors, Iraq would have quickly descended into a level of anarchy not seen in modern history. The amount of bloodshed would have made the current scenario look like nothing — Iraq would have exploded, and the ripple effects for the region would have been devastating.
The over 3,000 Americans who have died in Iraq did not die in vain. The idea that it is impossible to imagine a free and democratic Iraq is not a failure in policy, but a failure in vision. That doesn’t mean that such an end will be easy to achieve — far from it, but to abandon the process of democratization now would destroy everything that has been achieved so far. Our role in this process may only last a few years, but it is never the less instrumental in securing Iraq for the next phases in the process of democratization. Iraq cannot stabilize itself until the foreign and sectarian forces are controllable by the Iraqi military and police, and they need our help to arrive at that point.
The criticisms that we went in with too few troops, that our initial attempts at reconstruction were bungled, etc., all have some weight to them. Certainly we weren’t prepared for the state of Iraq after three decades of brutality and war. Iraqi civil society had been ground into dust, and civil society is the bedrock for democracy. What Saddam did to Iraq was a far more brutal rape than even we’d envisioned, and Iraqi society still bears the scars.
However, we are in the situation we are in now, and trying to revisit the issues of the past are an academic exercise. We owe the people of Iraq a debt, we created this situation, and we cannot walk away from it without our hands being bloodied by what would inevitably come next.
We’ve sacrificed much blood and treasure in this war, yet our future is on the line. Our enemies see our lack of resolve, and it signals to them that we are as weak as they thought. If that is the message we send, the terrorists operating in Iraq will have the biggest victory in the history of their movement, and it will also send a message to everyone on the fence to take the sides of the victorious party. The damage done to the Middle East and indeed the world could be irreparable, and sooner or later the spillover effects would reach our shores.
This is the fight we have now, and our soldiers are fighting it with bravery and courage. If all we do is infantilize them and ignore the cause for which they fight, then it is our cowardice that gives their enemy strength. Our soldiers should never be in the position of fighting both the foreign enemy abroad but also the derision of the people at home.