The controversy over Mitt Romney’s latest comments on Iraq makes one thing clear: the war may be over, but its shadow haunts our political discourse. To declare oneself an unrepentant supporter of the intervention is to risk opprobrium: in a blogpost assessing the moral feasibility of voting for Ron Paul with all his baggage, Conor Friedersdorf suggests that it’s hardly worse than voting for someone “who insists that even given the benefit of hindsight, the Iraq War was a just and prudent one.”
The prevailing view, increasingly shared on the right as well as the left, views the war in Iraq as a blunder if not a crime, a terrible waste of life on both sides. But reality is more complex—and, if early triumphalist views of the war proved tragically wrong, antiwar absolutism is also misguided.
For one, there is a large and important group that does not see this war as utterly pointless: the Iraqi people.
Survey after survey has found Iraqis more or less evenly split on whether the 2003 invasion was right or wrong, usually leaning toward “right.” (In 2009, only 28 percent saw it as “absolutely wrong.”) This is remarkable, considering that humans have a strong ingrained instinct to loathe foreign invaders—particularly ones with a different culture and a different dominant religion—and that respondents included people who held privileged positions under Saddam Hussein. In other polls, as many as three out of four Iraqis have agreed that Saddam’s removal was worth it despite the hardships.
In some important ways, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was not a misnomer. Iraqis today have freedom of speech, religion, and political activity that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Indeed, President Obama has acknowledged this despite his opposition to the war. In his 2010 Oval Office speech on the war’s official end, he stated that American troops “defeated a regime that had terrorized its people” and that “Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”
This brings to mind the early days of the invasion, when jubilant crowds in Baghdad tore down the statue of the fallen tyrant and even some staunch war critics on the left were ready to convert.
This optimism was soon shattered. By 2008, polls found that nearly half of Iraqis wanted U.S. and allied troops out immediately while another 20 percent wanted them to leave within the year. Most troubling, many Iraqis voiced sympathy for attacks on American soldiers, who came to be seen as killers rather than liberators.
The war’s mismanagement was undoubtedly part of the fiasco. But the problem goes deeper. Any military that tries to be a benign occupying force faces an extremely tough quandary. Being too aggressive in dealing with the occupied population invites backlash and anger; not being aggressive enough may lead to anarchy and anger over failure to prevent violence. U.S. troops have faced Iraqi hostility on both counts.
Wrongful killings of civilians—especially in the chaos of insurgency where it can be near-impossible to tell combatants from non-combatants—create another painful dilemma. If the military metes out severe punishments, both the troops and many people back home will likely see this as a betrayal toward soldiers serving their country in an unimaginably harsh and deadly situation. If the punishments are too lenient or non-existent, there goes any chance of winning hearts and minds.
Indeed, negotiations to allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq collapsed over the 2005 killings in Haditha, where 24 Iraqis, including six small children, were gunned down by U.S. Marines who had just lost a comrade to a roadside bomb. The squad leader is still facing trial; charges against several others have been dropped, sometimes in exchange for their testimony. However cloudy the circumstances, such an outcome shocks conscience and common sense.
In the recent talks, Iraq’s government wanted the U.S. to allow American soldiers to be tried by Iraqi courts for offenses on Iraqi soil. While U.S. resistance to this demand is understandable, so is Iraqi bitterness.
This is not to vindicate the left-wing cliché of the war as American slaughter of Iraqis (or even racist slaughter of “brown people”). Nearly 90 percent of the post-invasion deaths have been Iraqis killing Iraqis in sectarian or insurgent violence. What’s more, whatever the failings of U.S. military justice, Iraqis had a vastly better chance at protection and redress against abuses by American troops than by Hussein’s henchmen.
But human nature is such that the deaths of “one’s own” at the hands of foreign invaders, no matter how benevolent, will be seen as more galling. If this reaction smacks of tribal loyalty, so does the Rush Limbaugh crowd’s knee-jerk defense of virtually any U.S. service member accused of crimes against Iraqis. Political resistance from the right has almost certainly helped undermine the effective prosecution of such cases, and with it the goodwill America had earned among Iraqis.
One problem with hindsight is that it’s impossible to tell how events would have developed in a different scenario—in this case, one without the war. Assuming that something like the “Arab Spring” would still have broken out and reached Iraq, the ensuing bloodshed might well have exceeded that of the last eight years. On the other hand, the immediate escalation of sectarian strife in Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. troops does not encourage optimism.
No sane person would argue that the U.S. and its allies should send in troops whenever and wherever there is a tyrannical regime whose removal would benefit the population, with no other policy goal. The point is that the morality of intervention is full of gray areas, and history’s final verdict is far from being in.
Indeed, despite the conventional wisdom that the war is overwhelmingly unpopular in the U.S. today, polls show that Americans are evenly divided on whether taking military action in Iraq was the right decision; even 37 percent of Democrats believe it was. It is also worth remembering that many people of unquestionably high moral stature—including Czech president and former dissident Vaclav Havel, who died last week—supported the intervention. History, which disproves the pacifist shibboleth that freedom can never be exported by military force, may vindicate them yet.
EDIT: There has been a slight change to the last paragraph.