Iraq: where did we go wrong?

With President Bush’s speech last night (which I fell asleep waiting for, and missed), I’m forced to track down transcripts, clips, and other reports of what he said. And while others can debate that item, I find myself looking at the bigger picture: was there a single “big mistake” in Iraq, a single point when the wrong choice was made. And here’s what I’m coming up with, in no particular order:

1) The invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam was wrong.

No, I don’t think so. The plain and simple fact that the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War were intended to curb Saddam and bring him back into the community of nations — after limiting his ability to wage aggressive war, brutally oppress his own people, and restrain his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. As such, the sanctions were a complete and utter failure. He waged war by proxy by supporting, subsidizing, and training terrorists. He continued his massacres of his own people. And he mastered the “cheat and retreat” tactic of thwarting the weapons inspectors.

I seem to recall that, prior to the 9/11 attacks, there was a great deal of pressure from the left here and abroad to end the sanctions. There were repeated accounts of how many Iraqi babies were dying every month from the brutal, oppressive sanctions.

No, Saddam was not involved in 9/11. No one with a lick of sense ever said he was. But he was a danger to world peace, an ongoing terrorist threat to his own people and others, and committed numerous acts of war against the United States. He had to go. Period.

And let’s face it — in the world as it is today (or, even, in 2003), there is one nation and one nation alone that could invade Iraq, sweep aside their military, and depose the entire Baathist government in weeks. And that’s us, spelled U-S.

2) The decision to arrange for internationally-supervised free elections and a popularly-crafted Constitution was wrong.

No. No. A thousand times no.

Many critics of the way the Bush administration handled Iraq say that “you can’t force democracy on a people” or words to that effect. I reject that argument absolutely and without reservation.

That argument boils down to “the Iraqi people are incapable of accepting and embracing democracy, and making it work.” That smacks me of racism — not the liberal definition of racism, but the one the conservatives started talking about a while ago, and one that really struck me as accurate: “the soft racism of low expectations.”

3) The initial invasion was carried out poorly.

No. The initial plan was for a two-pronged assault, from the north and south, but at the last minute Turkey tried to hit us up for more money. Instead of paying the (let’s call a spade a spade here) bribe, we took our troops in Turkey waiting to attack, stuffed them on ships, and hauled them all the way around Africa to get to Iraq. Regardless, the actual invasion was carried out quite successfully — Saddam and his regime were toppled and driven underground with a minimum of civilian casualties and other damage.

4) The disbanding of the Iraqi military was a mistake.

Debatable, but I think not. The Iraqi military was a mess, for a variety of reasons. As we saw in 1991, it wasn’t that good a force to begin with. And the “rebuilding” over the following 12 years was pretty feeble, more concerned with preserving its loyalty to Saddam over efficiency and efficacy.

Of course, “good” is a relative term, especially in the Middle East. The standards there are far lower for a military. (unless, of course, you’re Israel — the only force that can be considered anywhere near to our standards.) Saddam’s military was adequate for most purposes — brutally suppressing dissent at home and discouraging hostile neighbors from abroad. But it wasn’t anywhere near good enough to do much more than slow us down a little. (Despite the finest military hardware he could buy from China, Russia, France, and Czechoslovakia, among others.)

Sometimes, when you have something that’s broken, it’s easier and more efficient to simply toss it out and start from scratch. Sometimes the flaws run so deeply, there is no good way to undo the harm and start fresh. And I believe that the Iraqi military was such an institution.

5) We didn’t act quickly and strongly enough against certain dissident/insurgent factions.

Yes and no. One of my first postings here was to call for the wholesale destruction of Fallujah after terrorists there butchered American contractors, with the cheerful support of the populace. I, along with a lot of others, were disgusted that their slaughter was left unanswered for so long, while the bad guys made Fallujah a battle cry and rallying point.

And then, after enough of the cockroaches got together, we went back and squashed them. Thoroughly.

Moqtada Al-Sadr is the current head quasi-bad guy there. (I qualify it because he’s not purely a bad guy in the eyes of many, but a hero and very popular figure, so he’s a bit tougher to handle properly than someone like Zarqawi.) Perhaps it would have been better to simply get rid of him early, when he first showed signs of being a proponent of violent resistance. As we’ve seen countless times, the concept of “martyr” in the Middle East has a very short lifespan, and corpses are far less likely to inspire terrorism than living, shouting leaders.

On the other hand, he very well might be someone we can “do business” with, under the right circumstances — the circumstances being “tone it down, or we’ll see if your successor is a bit more reasonable.” That’s a bit thuggish, but that often seems to be the tactic that works most often over there.

6) Our “rules of engagement” were way, way too restrictive.

Another one I’m not certain about. While on the one hand, there are a lot of stories from frustrated US service members who say that, there are also stories where US forces may very well have gone too far in their zeal to kill and/or capture terrorists — see Abu Ghraib and Haditha for two very-well-publicized examples.

President Bush seems to think so, and mentioned them in his speech last night, I see.

It’s a tough dichotomy — on the one hand, if you are committed to a fight, you should be committed to winning that fight. That means putting your best efforts forward, because in the long run a short but brutal war is less damaging to all concerned than a drawn-out “low-intensity conflict.” On the other hand, simply matching or exceeding the enemy’s level of ruthlessness can cause more problems for the winner in the long term. It’s a very delicate balance, and one I would much rather leave in the hands of those better equipped to judge — mainly the military, with appropriate civilian oversight.

So, am I in favor of the “surge” or not? I don’t really care. I’m in favor of winning, of beating down the terrorists and insurgents until the Iraqi government can step up and take care of itself. For far too long, Iraq has been a festering wound on the world, a source of trouble and turmoil and chaos and carnage. Removing Saddam from power was a good first step. Removing him from the ranks of the living was another. Presenting the terrorists with a big hunk of the hated Americans to fight was another gutsy move — they are intent on killing Americans anyway, why not present them with those Americans best equipped to protect themselves and hit back even harder? — that appears to be paying off.

So, if sending more forces into Iraq will help, then by all means let’s do it. If loosing the reins a bit and letting our forces do what is needed, then do that as well.

But simply withdrawing is not the answer. I’ve never served in the military, but many of those who have find it insulting that they signed up to protect us civilians, and now the “cut and runners” are saying they want to protect our warriors by hiding them behind us.

In Viet Nam, we signed a bogus peace agreement that no single reasonable person expected to survive very long — and it didn’t. But the consequences of a loss in Southeast Asia would be nothing compared to a widely-perceived US defeat in the Middle East. That would be a blow to our international prestige and future national security that would be virtually indelible.

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