Thinking about ‘Victory’ in Iraq

Thinking about ‘Victory’ in Iraq

As I write in mid-May, what George W. Bush has described as “the second battle in the war on terrorism” appears to have been won. My charge is immensely easier than that presented to those who, in winter, were asked to comment in these pages on the likelihood of war in Iraq. Or so it seems. For the catastrophic scenarios put forth by many on the antiwar left-of quagmires and inflamed Arab masses and negative domino effects-seem to have been disproved. Although the war, like all wars, was bloody and destructive, according to any criteria other than pacifist ones it is hard to resist the conclusion that its benefits-the ousting of Saddam, the creation of the possibility of a more civil, hospitable, and peaceful regime-have exceeded its costs (though these have not yet been fully tallied, and, as in all things, they have hardly been distributed evenly).

At the same time, both the “realistic” and triumphalist scenarios of the pro-war right-shared by many supporters of the war not on the right-seem also to have been disproved. As of this writing no substantial weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq, thus calling into question the primary Bush rationale for the war-though, to be fair, the administration put forth a cacophony of rationales to suit whatever occasions arose. It is equally hard to discern the overwhelming Iraqi popular support for a U.S. invasion that was predicted by neoconservative ideologues of war. In the wake of the Hussein regime, what we have seen is the breakdown of law and order, the looting of cities, vengeance killings, and nationalist and religious demonstrations-hostile and sometimes violent as well-that American servicemen have met with rifle fire. None of this is auspicious, and pretty much all of it was predictable.

What does this all mean? I think it means that the war has proved more complicated in its immediate results than was anticipated by its supporters and its critics. Again, this is easy to say in retrospect, and it is a truism of politics that the future is indeterminate. But I think that the “truth” of this observation extends beyond an easy post hoc judgment. It suggests that making sense of the current world moment eludes a triumphalism of the right or a catastrophism of the left. Let me elaborate, briefly and tentatively.

This war lacked a clear or consistent rationale. Yet it is fair to say that the primary official justification, shared by many supporters not associated with the administration, was the need to overthrow the Hussein regime in the name of higher values, whether these be the values of antiterrorism, security, or “democracy.” Now that the Hussein regime has been dispatched, and rather hastily, these supporters have been quick to interpret this war as vindication of the rationales offered on behalf of starting it-as proof of the strategy of confronting “rogue states” by means of “preventiv...