War is Over, If You Want It

Is the war in Iraq moving from folly to victory?


Have you heard the word? The war in Iraq is won.

Sure, we've heard "Mission Accomplished" before, but that was 3,699 American military deaths ago. But now, many insist, all signs are positive. The WMDs that triggered the war have been, of course, eliminated so totally that it's almost as if they never existed at all. But that's old news. There is fresh reason to cheer Iraqi developments, post-Petraeus surge.

From the pages of the Los Angeles Times to Fox News, from on-the-scene freelancer Michael Yon to the Wall Street Journal, facts and arguments about progress in Iraq of late paint a picture that's no longer stained with blood and smoke stretching to endless horizons.

Al Qaedaesque insurgent action from Anbar to Basra is calming down. Sunni fighters are aiming not at U.S. troops, but at Al Qaeda troublemakers. From June to now, the military says, violence in and around Baghdad is down 59 percent; car bombs down 65 percent, with casualties from them and roadside bomb down 80 percent, and general casualties from enemy attacks in the entire nation down 77 percent.

The British Prospect recently summed up the general shape of the "Iraq is all right" story:

The country is whole. It has embraced the ballot box. It has created a fair and popular constitution. It has avoided all-out civil war. It has not been taken over by Iran. It has put an end to Kurdish and marsh Arab genocide, and anti-Shia apartheid. It has rejected mass revenge against the Sunnis. As shown in the great national votes of 2005 and the noisy celebrations of the Iraq football team's success in July, Iraq survived the Saddam Hussein era with a sense of national unity; even the Kurds—whose reluctant commitment to autonomy rather than full independence is in no danger of changing—celebrated. Iraq's condition has not caused a sectarian apocalypse across the region. The country has ceased to be a threat to the world or its region.

Not everyone is convinced that the Mighty Petraeus' surge has succeeded, or is succeeding, or is at least bound to succeed any time soon—as Iraq is still a place in which "soldiers kill gunmen" and roadside bomb and mortar deaths are still mostly daily occurrences. Recent downturns in the violent mortality rate in Iraq have after all merely brought us back to late 2005 levels of carnage, back when a majority of Americans had already decided, mostly because of that ongoing carnage, that the war wasn't worth fighting. Improvements in Anbar seem to be leading to deterioration in Ninevah, and, as Daniel Larison argues

every time we have been told that there has been progress in Iraq, some other part of Iraq has soon enough started going to hell after one part had seen a modicum of order restored. This is not a coincidence, and we have seen the same pattern since the first battle of Fallujah: success in one place simply pushes insurgents and bombers to some other part of the country, where they begin their attacks anew.

Other bad news possibilities: Turkey's recent incursions into Iraqi Kurdish territory promise a whole new level of chaos. And a resurgent Iraqi nationalism, even if it doesn't manifest itself in multiple daily bombings, could threaten U.S. goals down the line.

As we've learned in the years since hearts and flowers morphed before our horrified eyes into IEDs and mortars, there's a great deal that can still go screwy in Iraq. Still, the trends are encouraging, and might have powerful and as yet unconsidered effects of American politics in 2008—and on U.S. foreign policy down the line.

The Iraq war is the American voters' greatest concern when polled, and a majority of Americans have long been unhappy with how it is going. Still, even after their supposedly war-driven victories in 2006, most of the Democratic Party's presidential frontrunners seem satisfied with a very, very slow wind-down that might not even be done by the end of their term. Congressional Democrats continue so far to fund the war. American politics seems less than responsive to this supposedly singular antiwar feeling of the people.

Just as public perception of whether the war was worth it didn't shift toward "no" until May 2004—the first month U.S. troop deaths broke 100 in a month—a continuing decline in Iraq violence seems likely to calm down American dudgeon over a war that, after all, in a draftless world, most of us are affected by only as tragic TV entertainment. It could well be the standard accepted opinion a year from now that Iraq, while perhaps not always managed best every step of the way, has turned out well enough in the end, or so far.

Time can make every war seem like a good idea, or at least like not an obviously bad one. The progress of civilization being what it is, and people's ability to gin up strong feelings about events far away in space and time being what they are, it can all start to seem For the Best. Some wicked regime gone (and don't suggest they would ever have gone away without being conquered! Except for maybe Soviet Russia, but….), new buildings built, the dead largely forgotten.

Of course, such judgments depend on when you look. U.S. meddling in Iranian affairs seemed like a good idea to most until 1979; and Iraq today, or tomorrow, may seem like a victory until someone radicalized by the invasion and occupation dirty bombs New York in 2020.

After all, we can be pretty confident, barring eco-catastrophe or full-on nuclear World War III, that things will, someday, be better in Iraq—on the whole, for most people—than they are now, than they were in 2004, or than they were under Saddam.

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 ( is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.