Why I Supported the Iraq War
In the fall of 2002, I went to Syria to interview people there about the looming Iraq conflict. At the time, I was still skeptical about the success of an invasion, mainly because of the Bush administration’s convoluted justifications for it. Each U.S. official, it seemed, had a different reason for going to war, and while this cacophony meant less concerted opposition to President George W. Bush’s goal of ousting Saddam Hussein, I thought it could seriously complicate matters if the postwar situation were mishandled.
Generals err in refighting their last wars, and political analysts are little different. I was applying the same logic I had after the war for Kuwait in 1991, when I wrote a paper for a Canadian academic journal arguing that George H.W. Bush had been lucky in winning so swift a victory against the Iraqis. In the period leading up to that Gulf War, I recalled, the American public had been hesitant, the administration’s intentions imprecise, and Congress divided. Had the fighting dragged on, the absence of a domestic consensus could have turned into a major headache for the White House. But nothing unifies as well as success, and the first President Bush dodged a bullet.
I had great ambivalence on the road to Damascus in 2002. War seemed inevitable, and I knew it could create an opportunity for deep regional change. Having spent much of my life in a Middle East suffocated by brutal and mediocre regimes, of which Iraq and Syria were loathsome exemplars; having arrived from a Lebanon effectively ceded to Syria before the 1991 Gulf War by the Bush administration in the name of political “realism”; having seen the sanctions regime against Iraq disintegrate as the tyrant augmented his own people’s suffering to play on Western guilt—having experienced all that and more, I was becoming less certain that invading Iraq was such a bad idea, even if I had, in January 2003, signed onto a statement calling for Saddam Hussein to voluntarily step down and leave Iraq in order to avoid a war. I was not eager for war, but I was also unwilling to oppose it if the alternative was leaving Saddam in power.
Among the Syrians I talked to was a prominent intellectual active in his country’s civil society movement. Sitting with him one evening, I expected criticism of America similar to what I had heard earlier that day. Instead, what I got was an account of the latest meeting of my interlocutor’s civil society group. He told me, “Someone asked, if the U.S. expands the Iraq war to overthrow the Syrian regime, who among us would defend the regime? No one lifted a finger to say they would.”
This came as a surprise. I knew I risked overinterpreting the exchange as reflecting a more general Arab view, but I also saw that in assuming knee-jerk anti-Americanism, I had underestimated the general disgust with Arab regimes. The United States could make a difference if it played its cards right. The domestic American debate over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was of secondary importance in the Middle East, where the parameters of discussion were parochial: Arabs were either for or against war in Iraq for reasons related to their own affairs. Whether Saddam might use his WMDs against Washington or London was largely irrelevant.
No less selfishly, I hoped American soldiers in Iraq might help undermine Syria’s 27-year-old subjugation of my own country, Lebanon, even if there was a chance that the Syrians would initially react by tightening their grip. Lebanese self-determination was not high on the Bush administration’s wish list, however, so my optimism, like that of comrades who also longed for an end to Syria’s vampiric embrace, was guarded.
By the time the war started in March 2003, opposition to it seemed meaningless, since only Arab despots would have benefited if it were aborted; in fact, for anyone willing to accept the war’s revolutionary potential, opposition seemed immoral. The Americans were inside the walls, and the only justifiable attitude was to support the achievement of the invasion’s most desirable outcome: the establishment, in stages, of a sustainable democratic state that could show other Arabs what they were missing. Those who doubted this could be done because Iraqi society was allegedly inoculated against the democratic bug had only to look at the anxiety in Arab presidential palaces and courts to see their pessimism was not universal. If the Bush administration was confused about its goals, as it certainly seemed to be in the run-up to the war, it was up to Arab liberals to provide guidance.
As Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, I flipped to Syria’s official satellite channel. Instead of showing footage from the Iraqi capital, it was, ludicrously, broadcasting a documentary on Damascus’ Umayyad mosque. I then turned to an Egyptian station where a retired general, an Arab nationalist, refused to believe Baghdad had been taken. The U.S. had doctored the footage, he said.
If Syria’s dictatorship and the Arab nationalists were scared, I thought, then something was right about the invasion. When the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down, I was not particularly concerned by what it said about the Americans; what interested me was whether Arabs would welcome the obliteration of their most vicious idol. Mine was an atavistic reaction, one that at first missed the fact that Baghdad had descended into chaos. I make no excuses for this, but I quickly saw that the looting that followed Saddam’s fall was ammunition for those seeking to discredit the invasion—and for those who, more justifiably, argued that this grand American adventure in the Arab world would not necessarily be pretty.
The looting was something else as well: a disturbing indication that the U.S. wasn’t quite sure what to do now that it had occupied Iraq. It would take two weeks for the first postwar administrator, Jay Garner, to reach Baghdad. But the Americans enjoyed a grace period, reinforced by Shiite and Kurdish support for Saddam’s overthrow and an understanding that a U.S. military presence was needed during a transitional phase.
It was at that point that two separate requirements should have come into play to buttress democratic dynamics in Iraq. First, the U.S. should have resolved its own inconsistencies over how to run the country. If democracy was to be the end product, then it was crucial to hand power over to the Iraqis themselves. But it was also important to give a leg up to the disadvantaged democrats who were timidly reemerging, not to rely on armed religious groups, particularly those with ties to Iran.
Instead, Bush sent in Paul Bremer. At first he seemed to fancy himself a new Percy Cox, the British civil servant who first ran Iraq under a British mandate. To many Iraqis, Bremer’s power seemed absolute, and the U.S. looked increasingly hypocritical for talking about democracy and the rule of law—a suspicion only reinforced by the Abu Ghraib outrage.
A second requirement, which never gained a foothold in the public imagination, was a consensus on what Iraq had turned into. As the “insurgency” gained momentum, as civilians were randomly slaughtered by a so-called re-sistance, it became obvious there was one assortment of forces, both inside and outside the country, that wanted Iraq to succeed, and one that did not. The solution was not to marginalize Arab Sunnis, the backbone of opposition to the new Iraq, but it was to use both force and cooptation to bring the community into the new order. Only the U.S. could do so. As a result, demanding a prompt U.S. withdrawal while Iraq remained unstable made little sense; yet this was the irresponsible rallying cry of the war’s opponents.