The rise of the fundamentalist Sunni terror group ISIS in Iraq over the last couple of weeks has provoked critics of the Iraq war to new heights of smugness. ISIS, of course, is the Taliban-like entity that split from Al-Qaeda in 2013, largely as the result of petty politicking between its leader, self-styled “caliph” and would-be global overlord Abu al-Baghdadi and Osama Bin Laden’s owlish successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to the latest charts, ISIS now controls over a dozen Iraq cities, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest, and we keep being warned their march on the capital is imminent.
Whether or not ISIS is actually a viable “government in waiting” remains far from clear — they have little experience holding territory, let alone running it — and sensationalistic media analogies framing the group as the North Vietnamese army descending on Saigon display a lazy misunderstanding of both conflicts. Yet either way, the sheer horror of these would-be caliphaties — the mass-murders of captured soldiers, the nightmarishly medieval social codes, the unapologetically imperial ambitions to rule the entire Middle East within five years — has made them a powerful symbol for everything wrong with America’s 2003 intervention in the first place.
Such is the supposed vindication of the anti-war left, whose members have been endlessly applauding their own retrospective rightness as of late. Told you so — the war was a disaster. You should have listened to us!
But really, should we have? Bad decisions have to be viewed in the contexts of the debates in which they were reached, and even in these dark days, it remains an open question whether anyone on the left was actually offering a viable alternative to war in 2003. Or, to put it more specifically, whether anyone on the left was offering a morally coherent, non-war strategy for dealing with the rogue regime of Saddam Hussein that America would have been wiser to pursue.
As someone who politically came of age during the 2003 lead-up to war, I remember well the left’s discomfort in dealing with the Saddam question — a particularly awkward position to be in, given the dangers and brutality of the Saddam regime were very much the central focus of the entire war conversation.
Anti-war liberals desperately wanted to maintain their credibility as the self-proclaimed defenders of human rights and democracy, and understandably so. Yet this meant the most logically contrary anti-war position (and certainly the position that would seem most justifiable in the current context) — that Saddam Hussein, bad as he was, was a force for Iraqi stability and secularism, and thus better than the alternative — was not merely avoided, but actively denounced. Indeed, if anything, a common liberal refrain at the time was to claim it was actually those right-wingers in the White House whose anti-Saddam credentials were most dubious.
Did not some of those former Reaganites have former careers as Saddam boosters during his war with Iran in the 1980s? Did not we have a photograph of Rumsfeld himself shaking the dictator’s hand? Was it not the Republicans who turned a blind eye when Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988? Didn’t a Republican commerce secretary allow Saddam to import deadly dual-use chemicals for his WMD arsenal? Did not the president’s father make a conscious choice to allow Saddam to remain in power at the end of the first Gulf War — then brag about it in his memoirs?
Beginning every anti-war argument with a sort of perfunctory throat-clearing about Saddam’s obvious wickedness became a pronounced tic of the anti-war set in those days, yet their accompanying lack of strategy for confronting the evil they just acknowledged was large part of the reason they ultimately lost the war argument.
War proponents cried incohrence and hypocrisy and they were not wrong. During the 1990s, after all, many of the same people who would oppose the 2003 invasion were also steadfast opponents of the UN’s post-Gulf War Iraqi sanctions, which they blamed (and not unjustifiably) for tremendous death and suffering. Yet this made the left-wing war position the very definition of an unwinnable paradox: Saddam should neither be removed forcibly, nor sanctioned, nor supported, nor ignored. Perhaps some felt he should have been overthrown internally (though I remember a lot of snide words about how the Bush administration was plotting to swap “one dictator for another” back in the days when the dissident Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi seemed to be a White House darling). Perhaps some felt Saddam had the capacity to democratize himself, a la Emperor Hirohito after World War II. But even counter-proposals as strained as these were not made. The cowardly have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too stance that should be both no war and no Saddam was exactly the sort of moral bankruptcy that drove many principled left-of-center intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff to abandon the anti-war cause, and sleazy demagogues like George Galloway and Michael Moore to assume larger roles within it.
No, it was only the fringe anti-war right — your Pat Buchanans, your Lew Rockwells, your Robert Novaks — in all their isolationist xenophobia, human rights indifference and America uber alles supremacism, that offered a genuine alternative to the war to unseat Saddam, though it was an alternative so ugly and mean-spirited few bothered to take it seriously.
Hussein was a brutal dictator they conceded, but Iraq was also a preposterous artificial country filled with hateful, warring savages that needed a strongman’s iron grip to keep everyone from lunging at each others’ throats. Islam was a cruel and violent religion thoroughly incompatible with democracy — give Iraqi Muslims the vote and they’ll simply elect fundamentalists to oppress themselves further — witness Hamas in Palestine. American foreign policy should never be about righting all the world’s wrongs, merely upholding whatever state of affairs keeps the United States rich and safe. Saddam Hussein’s murderous energies were reserved for his own people (or at worst his neighbors) and he was perfectly content to sell Americans oil. In fact, as noted, Saddam actually had some history as a man with whom the United States could do business, and he was admirably hostile to the region’s most ferociously anti-American regime — Iran.
Vindicated by recent events or not, it was a fringe opinion for a reason. Such coldly self-serving logic is not consistent with mainstream American morality, particularly the uniquely American notion that theirs is not a global hegemon like the nasty empires of yore, but a kind and empathetic republic whose foreign policy embodies the same neighbourly virtues of trust, sympathy and generosity its people practice in their day-to-day lives, and honours the same democratic principles abroad that are protected by its progressive constitution at home. As American anxieties over everything from the Rwandan genocide of 1994 to the Assad massacre of today have proven, the ethical lens through which we view the justness of American foreign policy continues be of the either-or variety — the United States can either actively alleviate the suffering of others or be somehow complicit in it.
As the country burns, the most profound intellectual legacy of the Iraq war will be the degree to which a quintessentially American conception of geopolitical power as a force to be dictated by emotions of idealism, responsibility, and guilt — held since at least the Second World War — begins to break down, and Americans, especially Americans of the left, are able to accept that the higher goal of “peace” often requires an explicit, callous indifference to the loss of foreign life and foreign freedom in the name of stability.
Running offensively counter, as they do, to deeply-entrenched American values on all sides of the political spectrum, such arguments may not stick.
They certainly didn’t in 2003.