In a “GPS” special Monday night, I look back on the choices made before, during and after the war in Iraq, and the consequences of those choices. But what do I make of it all?
Well, let me first be honest and tell you what I made of it all at the time: I was in favor of the Iraq War. I believed that a modern democracy in Iraq could be a new model of politics for the region, a middle ground between repressive dictatorships and Islamic fanaticism. And I never believed that Iraqis or Arabs were somehow genetically incapable of self-rule.
Now, it’s true that I did urge that the United States needed to send in many more troops than it did so that it could maintain order. I also called for a U.N. mandate to provide greater legitimacy and avoid the image of an American occupation of a Muslim, Middle Eastern country. And I worried that Iraq’s sectarian divisions would pull the country apart.
But none of that changes the fact that I did support the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
And some good certainly came of that decision. After all, Hussein was a gruesome dictator who killed hundreds of thousands and plunged his country into wars. Today, Iraq is more free and open than almost any other Arab country, despite its struggles. Kurdistan, meanwhile, is a real success story — an oasis of stability, modernity and tolerance.
But in the end, the Iraq War was a failure and a terrible mistake, causing geopolitical chaos and humanitarian tragedy.
Once the regime fell apart, the society fell apart. Millions of Iraqis were displaced and at least 150,000 civilians died. That’s in addition to the almost 4,500 brave American troops. Some argue that one can overlearn the lessons of Iraq. Sure, but my caution about a larger American intervention in Syria or elsewhere derives not just from Iraq.
Consider this: The United States replaced the regime in Iraq and gave the new one massive assistance for a decade. The result? Chaos and humanitarian tragedy. Washington toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya but chose not to attempt nation-building in that country. The result has been chaos and humanitarian tragedy. Washington supported a negotiated removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen and the election that followed, but generally took a back seat. The result again was chaos and humanitarian tragedy.
The reality in that part of the world is that many of its regimes are fragile, presiding over weak institutions, little civil society, and often no sense of nationhood itself. In that situation, outside interventions, however well-meaning, might not make things better. Sometimes they can even make things worse.
Could Iraq have turned out differently and set a different pattern? If a stable, functioning democracy had been established in the heart of the Middle East, could it have been a model for the region, a third way between dictatorship and Islamic radicalism?
Well, If America had made all the right decisions, who knows. But it didn’t, and as a result, we will never truly know what Iraq’s future could have been.