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But if that’s the only bar that has to be jumped for people to decide that that means the Iraq invasion was a good idea, a settled victory for American military might, that’s setting a scarily low threshold for waging war.
War is not just a policy tool whose propriety can be judged by a bare measure of “well, it accomplished what it set out to do.” It’s a terrible bloody mess that can only be justified under very stringent circumstances of retaliation or defense, and even if someday soon the number of maniacs blowing themselves and others up over there becomes low enough that no one is alarmed, that isn’t sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation.
I’ll make an easily-refutable prediction, and will admit I’m wrong a year from now if necessary: I think the “surge is working” types are on the winning edge of American political argumentation, and that the American people are more than ready to try to put this all behind us if given half a reason to before the next election. Especially if the Democrats go, as seems likely, with their most widely hated candidate, Hillary Clinton, they shouldn’t count on disgust with Bush’s Iraq policy to shoo them in.
If this turns out to be true, what will this mean for the future of American foreign policy? The Republicans will be emboldened to think that any move they can frame as part of the “war on terror” will work out for them in the end, making future wars in Iran and maybe Syria far more likely. As for the “opposition party,” already there’s little about the reasoning or tone of most Democrats to think they’ve learned any larger lesson about intervention, other than “the Americans don’t like the Iraq war, but I can’t really do or say anything too radical, quick, emotional or inflammatory about it either.” (Hello, Pete Stark!)
And if troops have to stay in Iraq for a really long time, even after the daily murders cool down even more? Well, troops stay everywhere for a really long time, don’t they, and it has never been something Americans have voted either for or against with any passion.
Anti-warriors are sometimes accused of wanting the U.S. to lose in Iraq, just so they can be right. Not so. But they do want America to stop waging unnecessary wars. Besides, lose in Iraq? All the stated goals of this war have been won. Saddam gone, check. WMD threat? No need to speak of it again. Democratically elected government in Iraq? A-yup. And if the “Pottery Barn rule” is to become a cornerstone of American foreign policy, then we need to be extra-careful to make sure we stop breaking other countries.
Judging whether the Iraq war and occupation was a good idea or the right thing to do based on the principle that things are, or seem like they soon will be, better there than they were before treats war as merely a neutral policy tool. The question preceding any decision to go to war shouldn’t be as simple as: “Might some long-term good occur out of this?” (especially when any attempt to wonder whether or not things might or could have been better in Iraq in 2012 than they were in 2002 even if we never invaded will be dismissed as childish sci-fi thinking, and the costs of likely more than a couple of trillion by 2017 thought of as all in a day’s good work, and for our kids to pay off anyway). The real question before a war needs to be: “is this absolutely necessary given a fair consideration of the horrors and unpredictability of war and the purpose of the U.S. military?” Which is not: “make the world a better place, somewhere down the line, killing lots of people on the way.” For America's future, this kind of victory in Iraq could really mean defeat.
Still, the next war will doubtless begin with high approval ratings.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.