Almost everything that is now written about Iraq rings not quite right: It was a "blunder"; there should have been far more troops there; the country must be trisected; we must abide by a timetable and leave regardless of events on the ground; Iraq will soon devolve into either an Islamic republic or another dictatorship; the U.S. military is enervated and nearly ruined; and so on.
In fact, precisely because we have killed thousands of terrorists, trained an army, and ensured a political process, it is possible to do what was intended from the very beginning: lessen the footprint of American troops in the heart of the ancient caliphate.
Save for a few courageous Democrats, like Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who look at things empirically rather than ideologically, and some stalwart Republicans, most politicians and public intellectuals have long bailed on the enterprise.
This is now what comprises statesmanship: Some renounce their earlier support for the war. Others, less imaginative, in Clintonian (his and hers) fashion, take credit for backing the miraculous victory of spring 2003, but in hindsight, of course, blame the bloody peace on Bush. Or, better yet, they praise Congressman Murtha to the skies, but under no circumstances go on record urging the military to follow his advice.
How strange that journalists pontificate post facto about all the mistakes that they think have been made, nevertheless conceding that here we are on the verge of a third and final successful election. No mention, of course, is ever made about the current sorry state of journalistic ethics and incompetence (cf. Jayson Blair, Judy Miller, Michael Isikoff, Bob Woodward, Eason Jordan). A group of professionals, after all, who cannot even be professional in their own sphere, surely have no credibility in lecturing the U.S. military about what they think went wrong in Iraq.
Of course, the White House, as is true in all wars, has made mistakes, but only one critical lapse — and it is not the Herculean effort to establish a consensual government at the nexus of the Middle East in less than three years after removing Saddam Hussein. The administration's lapse, rather, has come in its failure to present the entire war effort in its proper moral context.
We took no oil — the price in fact skyrocketed after we invaded Iraq. We did not do Israel's bidding; in fact, it left Gaza after we went into Iraq and elections followed on the West Bank. We did not want perpetual hegemony — in fact, we got out of Saudi Arabia, used the minimum amount of troops possible, and will leave Iraq anytime its consensual government so decrees. And we did not expropriate Arab resources, but, in fact, poured billions of dollars into Iraq to jumpstart its new consensual government in the greatest foreign aid infusion of the age.
In short, every day the American people should have been reminded of, and congratulated on, their country's singular idealism, its tireless effort to reject the cynical realism of the past, and its near lone effort to make terrible sacrifices to offer the dispossessed Shia and Kurds something better than the exploitation and near genocide of the past — and how all that alone will enhance the long-term security of the United States.
That goal was what the U.S. military ended up so brilliantly fighting for — and what the American public rarely heard. The moral onus should have always been on the critics of the war. They should have been forced to explain why it was wrong to remove a fascist mass murderer, why it was wrong to stay rather than letting the country sink into Lebanon-like chaos, and why it was wrong not to abandon brave women, Kurds, and Shia who only wished for the chance of freedom.
Alas, that message we rarely heard until only recently, and the result has energized amoral leftists, who now pose as moralists by either misrepresenting the cause of the war, undermining the effort of soldiers in the field, or patronizing Iraqis as not yet civilized enough for their own consensual government.
We can draw down our troops not because of political pressures but because of events on the ground. First, the Iraqi military is improving — not eroding or deserting. The canard of only "one battle-ready brigade" could just as well apply to any of the Coalition forces. After all, what brigade in the world is the equal of the U.S. military — or could go into the heart of Fallujah house-to-house? The French? The Russians? The Germans? In truth, the Iraqi military is proving good enough to hold ground and soon to take it alongside our own troops.
Despite past calls here to postpone elections, and threats of mass murder there for those who participated in them, they continue on schedule. And the third and last vote is the most important, since it will put a human face on the elected government — and the onus on it to officially sanction U.S. help and monetary aid or refuse it.
Saddam's trial will remind the world of his butchery. Despite all the ankle-biting by human-rights groups about proper jurisprudence, the Iraqis will try him and convict him much more quickly than the Europeans will do the same to Milosevic (not to mention the other killers still loose like Gen. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic), posing the question: What is the real morality — trying a mass murderer and having him pay for his crimes, or engaging in legal niceties for years while the ghosts of his victims cry for justice?
Zarqawi and the radical Islamicists are slowly being squeezed as only a war at their doorstep could accomplish. Critics of Iraq should ask if we were not fighting Zarqawi in Iraq, where exactly would we be fighting Islamic fascists — or would the war against terror be declared over, won, lost, dormant, or ongoing, with the U.S. simply playing defense?
Instead, what Iraq did is ensure that al Qaeda's Sunni support is being coopted by democracy. Jordan, the terrorists' old ace in the hole that could always put a cosmetic face on its stealthy support for radicals, has essentially turned on Zarqawi and with him al Qaeda. Syria is under virtual siege and its border sanctuary now a killing zone. Bin Laden can offer very little solace from his cave. And somehow Islamists have alienated the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Australia, Japan, and increasingly Middle East democracies like those in Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iraq, and reform movements in Lebanon and Jordan.
Decision day is coming when Zarqawi's bombers will have to choose either to die, or, like a Nathan Bedford Forrest ("I'm a goin' home"), quit to join the reform-seeking majority. That progress was accomplished only by the war in Iraq, and without it we would be back to playing a waiting game for another 9/11, while an autocratic Middle East went on quietly helping terrorists without consequences, either afraid of Saddam or secretly enjoying his chauvinist defiance.
Kurds and Shiites support us for obvious reasons — no other government on the planet would risk its sons and daughters to give them the right of one man/one vote. They may talk the necessary talk about infidels, but they know we will leave anytime they so vote. After the December election, expect them — and perhaps the Sunnis as well — quietly to ask us to stay to see things through.
Europe is quiet now. Madrid, London, Paris, and Amsterdam have taught Europeans that it is not George Bush but Islamic fascism that threatens their very existence. Worse still, they rightly fear they have lost the good will of the United States that so generously subsidized their defense — an entitlement perhaps to be sneered at during the post-Cold War "end of history," but not in a new global war against Islamic terrorists keen to acquire deadly weapons.
Our military realizes that it can trump its brilliant victories in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein by birthing democracy in Iraq — or risk losing that impressive reputation by having a new Lebanon blow up in its face. China, Japan, India, Russia, Korea, Iran, and other key countries are all watching Iraq — ready to calibrate American deterrence by the efficacy of the U.S. military in the Sunni Triangle. Our armed forces have already accomplished what the British and the Soviets could never do in Afghanistan; what the Russians failed to accomplish in Chechnya; and what we came so close to finishing in Vietnam. They won't falter now when they are so close to winning an almost impossibly difficult war, one that will be recognized by friends and enemies as beyond the capability of any other military in the world.
The Left now risks losing its self-proclaimed moral appeal. It had trashed the efforts in Iraq for months on end, demanded a withdrawal — only recently to learn from polls that an unhappy public may also be unhappy with it for advocating fleeing while American soldiers are in harm's way. Another successful election, polls showing Iraqis overwhelmingly wishing us to stay on, visits by elected Iraqi officials asking continued help, and a decreasing American footprint will gradually erode the appeal of the antiwar protests — especially as triangulating public intellectuals and pundits begin to quiet down, fathoming that the United States may win after all.
The administration realizes that as long as it stays the course and our military remains confident we can win, we will — despite defections in the Congress, venom in the press, and cyclical lows in the polls. In practical political terms, only the administration, not the Congress or the courts, can choose to cease our efforts in Iraq. Rightly or wrongly, the Bush administration will be judged on Iraq: If we lose, the president will be seen as a tragic LBJ-like figure who squandered his initial grassroots support in a foreign quagmire; if we win, he will be remembered, in spirit, as something akin to a Harry Truman, and, in deed, an FDR who won a critical war against impossible odds, and restored the security of the United States.
George Bush may well go down in history as a less-effective leader than his father or Bill Clinton; but unlike either, he may also have a real chance to be remembered in that select class of rare presidents whom history records as having saved this country at a time of national peril and in the face of unprecedented criticism. Bush's domestic agenda hinges on Iraq: If he withdraws now, his proposals on taxes, social security, deficit reduction, education, and immigration are dead. If he sees the Iraq project through, these now-iffy initiatives will piggyback on the groundswell of popular thanks he will receive for reforming the Middle East.
Strangely, I doubt whether very many would agree with much of anything stated above — at least for now. But if the administration can emphasize the moral nature of this war, and the military can continue its underappreciated, but mostly successful efforts to defeat the enemy and give the Iraqis a few more months of breathing space, who knows what the current opportunists and pessimists will say by summer. Will they say that they in fact were always sorta, kinda, really for removing Saddam and even staying on to see democracy work in Iraq?
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
By Victor Davis Hanson
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online