Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the costs of the war are quite familiar. But in focusing on what was lost, we often lose sight of what was won.
To start with the obvious, Saddam Hussein is gone. That’s no small thing. It’s not just that Saddam was one of the most vicious mass murderers of his era — though it’s important to remember that he was, and that the horror of the past decade in Iraq still hasn’t matched his totalitarian regime’s body count — it’s that his unpredictability made him especially dangerous. That’s the flipside to the intelligence failures in the run-up to the war: If it was so hard to tell that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction program was moribund, it would have been just as hard to predict his behavior had he been left in power for the past decade, enriched by the failure of the sanctions regime (remember the bad joke that was Oil-for-Food?) and rising oil prices driven by Chinese and Indian demand. Restarting his WMD program, funding international terrorism, further military adventurism — one could never tell with Saddam.
Some see Saddam Hussein’s loss as Iran’s gain. Yes, the current Iraqi government’s policies tend to be more congenial to the Islamic Republic than Saddam’s were, but the picture is more complicated than that. A murderous anti-American loose cannon like Saddam was never an ideal ingredient for a stable balance of power. And because the current government of Iraq isn’t an international pariah, oil production is higher now than it has been since before the first Gulf War; with less Iraqi oil on the market, sanctions on Iran would be a much tougher sell in Europe.
Iraq is still a violent place; the Iraqi government is dysfunctional and has grown less genuinely democratic. Elections in Iraq did, as President Bush envisioned, change the politics of the region, but the illiberalism of the people who’ve thrived at the ballot box has created new challenges. But none of this should make anyone nostalgic for Saddam Hussein.
But the war wasn’t just about Saddam Hussein. Iraq became the central front in the war against al Qaeda, and it was the ideal place to open that front. Iraq loomed large in Osama bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war. His first grievance was that “the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia” — that is, he objected to the Saudis hosting U.S. troops, the linchpin of the policy of containment toward Saddam. Bin Laden’s second grievance was that the U.S. had gone to war with Iraq and might do so again. It was natural that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s branch of al Qaeda would meet the U.S. on the battlefield in Iraq. As with the other factions that emerged after the invasion, American policymakers weren’t really prepared for this, but, with the course correction that was the surge, eventually managed to deal with it.
Thousands of young men came to Iraq to join Zarqawi’s jihad, and died there. If there were no occupation of Iraq, how many would nonetheless have had an enthusiasm for killing Americans? It’s likely a nontrivial number who, absent the invasion of Iraq, would have made prime recruits for al Qaeda attacks elsewhere — perhaps on U.S. assets abroad (like the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania or the USS Cole), and perhaps on America itself.
There have been numerous foiled terror plots since 9/11, but the successful major attack that most of us were expecting never came; credit a mixture of good counterterrorism and good luck, but also credit the men and women who lost friends, limbs, and lives taking the fight against al Qaeda to Iraq for making the pool of terrorist recruits smaller and a successful attack less likely. In other words: Yes, the Iraq War made us safer.
The cost in blood, treasure, and U.S. credibility was greater than anyone anticipated. The mistakes along the way were nearly catastrophic. The Iraq War was, no doubt, a Pyrrhic victory. But it was a victory nonetheless.