What was it all about? When did it begin?... Couldn't we just stay put?... We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we?... There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.
Well, we'll know better next time.
-- Tom Stoppard, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
Hey, kids! I know that right now, if you're watching the "news" at all, you're probably neck deep in health care and whip counts and wondering how Bart Stupak is going to vote. But you know what happened seven years ago today? The United States launched a pointless war in Iraq! Not a deficit-neutral one, either! But for some reason, nobody cares about it anymore.
You remember why we went to war in the first place, even? A reminder: it was because the American people were sold on the idea that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. And in a post-9/11 world, that wouldn't stand! The only thing that would stand was crazy over-reaction to everything! Actual weapons inspectors kept telling us that they couldn't find any WMDs -- but that was coming from Hans Blix, some kind of Swedish socialist, and Mohammed ElBaradei, whose name sounds pretty Muslimy! And then Donald Rumsfeld said that absence of evidence wasn't evidence of absence and that there were unknown unknowns and what not, and so we trotted off to invade Iraq on the thinnest of pretexts, and what ho! It turns out that Saddam's awesome military capacity amounted to "occasionally being able to boil some soup."
Of course, that wasn't the only reason we invaded! America needed to show the terrorists that we were serious. But as it turned out, fighting the actual terrorists was hard. But Iraq looked like it would be a cakewalk, the very sort of place where we could execute the vision of Thomas Friedman:
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand. You don't think that we care about our open society? You think this [terrorism] bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.
Yes! Let's forcibly sodomize some people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, to prove our seriousness!
See, we were going to "fight the terrorists in Iraq so that we wouldn't have to fight them here," in America. Nobody could explain why we simply couldn't keep fighting those terrorists in Afghanistan, where they were. You know, it was March when we launched the war, so maybe we were all just really caught up in the NCAA tournament, and we wanted to play the terrorists on a neutral court. Eventually, a microscopic terrorist organization called "al Qaeda in Iraq" sprung up where none existed before. Meanwhile, our actual enemies made their way to safe havens, reconstituted themselves and touched off a golden age of global jihad.
Eventually, goals got grander and vaguer and more impossible to deliver on. At some point, our mission became "spreading democracy" at the tip of a bayonet. We were going to settle Iraq out, create an American ally, and slowly all the bad actors in the region would turn around. It was a pretty, pretty theory -- surely, among the prettiest! In practice however, getting bogged down in Iraq strengthened the hand of the Iranian regime, emboldened Hezbollah and did nothing to prevent the elevation of Hamas in Palestine.
In December of 2003, though, Libya agreed to dismantle its WMD programs, and about nine months later President George W. Bush agreed to lift trade sanctions that had long been in place. Bush's war cheerleaders jumped up and down, proclaiming Libya's reduced intransigence as a sign that liberty was finally taking root in the Middle East -- er... Africa, I mean. You know, the parts that weren't the Sudan? Something like that.
Years later, of course, Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi was released from custody in Scotland and returned to Libya, where he was welcomed as a hero, and suddenly, Libya and Moammar Qaddafi were back on everybody's shit list. At the time, no one even spent a minute reflecting on the fact that Libya was supposed to be the shining example of democracy rooting as a result of the War in Iraq. People just plumb forgot!
Of course, we can all celebrate the deposing of Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator who murdered the citizens of Halabja with poison gas developed from chemical precursors that became available after President Ronald Reagan removed Iraq from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. What's harder to celebrate is the way Saddam's ouster culminated in a early morning hanging at which his executors chanted the name of Moqtada al Sadr -- that avatar of Jeffersonian democracy. After the execution, Hussein's body was repeatedly stabbed, in keeping with post-Enlightenment government traditions.
In 2004, John Kerry ran for President against George W. Bush, and the War on Iraq was the key issue of the day. Unfortunately for Kerry, he ran into the little problem of not being able to reconcile his previous support for the War In Iraq with his latter-day opposition to it. So, rather than just do the right thing and admit he was wrong, he attempted to split the difference. Sure, the whole war in Iraq was a terrible strategy, Kerry reasoned, but if America would just put him in charge of the terrible strategy, he would make everything better through the sheer force of his John Kerryness. There weren't nearly enough Americans willing to vote for that nonsense, however, and Bush was re-elected to a second term.
In the years that followed, Democrats stood up and swore up and down that Bush needed to bring an end to the war. We needed a timetable for withdrawal! We needed a hard date set to end the occupation! We needed to take back up the War in Afghanistan, where our enemies were. But the poor little dear Democrats just didn't have the votes to do anything!
Of course, that all changed in 2006, when the Democrats were swept back in to legislative power on the strength of their constant promise to end the War in Iraq. But when the time came to act on their promises, the Democrats completely and utterly punked out, like cowardly little shits, and the war wended on.
I guess I'm leaving some stuff out, like the widespread insurgency, the sectarian violence, the shame of Abu Ghraib, the displacement of thousands of people from their homes, the destruction of a nations' infrastructure, the looting of a nations' culture and many, many thousand of deaths.
On the other hand, there was a SURGE! And it demonstrated that U.S. military casualties could be reduced by adding reinforcements. I hadn't thought this premise was the least bit controversial, but everyone talked about the Surge as if they'd just discovered a vein of Unobtainium, or something.
Oh, and at no time did the media bother to seriously question the wisdom of any of this, because to do so would mean inviting the reputation-killing charge of Not Being Serious, which would mean fewer invitations to cocktail parties where one could get drunk with Christopher Hitchens.
Eventually, in November of 2008, the Bush administration entered into a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqis that finally solidified the setting of a timetable for withdrawal and a hard end-date to the Iraqi occupation. The drawing down of troops is proceeding according to those guidelines, and the Iraqis are holding elections. Of course, bombs are going off all over the place during those elections, but we're not going to let that get in the way of the success we all richly deserve.
And now, Thomas Friedman is saying things like, "It's Up To The Iraqis Now. Good Luck". And that is just a PERFECT explication of where the Very Important People In America are at, right now.
Former President George W. Bush's gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right. It should have and could have been pursued with much better planning and execution. This war has been extraordinarily painful and costly. But democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing.
Some argue that nothing that happens in Iraq will ever justify the costs. Historians will sort that out. Personally, at this stage, I only care about one thing: that the outcome in Iraq be positive enough and forward-looking enough that those who have actually paid the price -- in lost loved ones or injured bodies, in broken homes or broken lives, be they Iraqis or Americans or Brits -- see Iraq evolve into something that will enable them to say that whatever the cost, it has given freedom and decent government to people who had none.
That, though, will depend on Iraqis and their leaders.
See, WE DID IT. Even though the actual doing of it was terrible, and people died, and it cost us untold sums of money. But nobody promised it would be easy, except for those who did! Historians will sort it out, in textbooks being cooked up by McCarthy-loving dullards in Texas. We have given Iraq a great gift, and if they cannot eventually overcome the death and devastation and displacement and distrust, well... THAT'S THEIR FAULT.
See, that's the amazing thing: everyone who led the charge into Iraq really believes that they are going to walk away clean from this! Everyone actually believes that it is perfectly OK to have not learned a goddamn thing from all of this.
Well, we'll know better next time.