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The Intellectual Stakes of the Iraq War

By Robert Tracinski

In September, the US Congress will receive a report from General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, reporting on the early results of his new counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. No matter what General Petraeus reports, it is clear that the Democratic leaders in Congress will immediately put forward legislation requiring the president to withdraw American forces from Iraq--and it is also clear that a growing number of "moderate" Republicans in both the Senate and the House will support this legislation.

What this means is that the decisive battle of the war in Iraq will not be fought in Baghdad this summer; it will be fought in Washington, DC, in September. If we lose this battle, defeat in Iraq will be guaranteed, because defeat will be legislated by Congress.

We have to begin arming ourselves intellectually for this crucial battle. But four years of war in Iraq have left some of the crucial issues muddled. Much of the American political right senses that withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster, but many commentators are not able to state clearly the exact reasons for that disaster. More ominously, some former supporters of the war have come to wonder whether the cost and length of the war are worthwhile and to fantasize that it might be possible to withdraw without sacrificing our vital interests. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, for example, has recently washed his hands of the war, while still demanding that we fight radical Islam--by means of such ineffectual symbolic gestures as a federal lawsuit against OPEC.

So it is important at this moment to understand exactly what is at stake, and why it is vital to persist and win in Iraq--no matter what else the United States does.

Most commentators on the right have argued, correctly, that an American retreat in Iraq would embolden our enemies by validating their conviction that America is psychologically weak and can be driven from any conflict by a few months' or years' worth of mayhem and car bombings. I will expand on that argument in part two of this article. But what I think is less well recognized is the intellectual effect of a repudiation of the Iraq War. A withdrawal from Iraq would constitute a national disavowal of the principles used to justify the war--yet these include vital principles that are indispensable for the wider battle against radical Islam.

The crucial context for the war in Iraq is that it is part of a wider conflict against radical Islam, and any recommendation for what should be done in Iraq should be judged by the standard: will it make that wider war harder or easier to fight?

In the wider war, it is now clear that our central enemy is Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been arming and training Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq and is now arming and training the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan; it is also the power behind an Islamist Axis that includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; and Iran has allied itself with our other enemies across the globe, as far away as Venezuela.

But if we are to wage war against Iran, on what grounds shall we do it? What principles of war would we have to invoke?

What we find is that, if we repudiate the Iraq War, we repudiate all of the principles we would need to justify an attack on Iran--because all of those principles applied to Iraq, too.

Let me explain what I mean by a principle used to justify war. We cannot attack Iran just because it is an Islamic theocracy; that would commit us to overthrowing every dictatorship on earth. Of course, we can and should act to undermine all dictatorships (including, for example, the Saudi theocracy) through the many economic, diplomatic, and ideological means at our disposal--but to wage war, we require a specific cause for war, a specific reason why a particular regime is a direct threat to the US and her vital interests.

In this regard, it is important to recall how difficult it really was to make the case for war against Iran following September 11, 2001. Iran may have had a minor, indirect role in aiding some of the terrorist organizations involved in the September 11 attacks, as did Iraq--but the actual host for the planners of September 11 was a rival theocracy in Afghanistan. The case for war against Iran had to be based on wider grounds, primarily that Iran, too, was a longtime state sponsor of terrorism, that its terrorists had struck at the US and its allies in the past, and thus that Iran was equivalent to Afghanistan as a threat to the United States.

As I argued at the time, "It does not matter which [state sponsor of terrorism] had a direct role in today's attacks. They are all motivated by the same anti-American hatred. They have all supported terrorists who have launched previous attacks, who have promised to attack the US repeatedly--and who may do so again tomorrow." (TIA, October 2001.) But I also recognized at the time that this would be a difficult argument to make. September 11 was our Pearl Harbor for Afghanistan--but not for Iran. We could not justify war on the basis of immediate retaliation for a direct attack.

A war against Iran or any other regime in the Middle East would require different causes of war--precisely the causes used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

In recent years, I have noticed a widespread misconception among some conservatives that the Bush administration's primary justification for the invasion of Iraq was the desire to achieve "democracy" there, as motivated by an altruist version of "just war theory." In fact, the administration only began to talk prominently about "democracy" after it received congressional authorization for the war and had already prepared the weapons and troops necessary for the invasion. "Democracy" was the administration's plan for what would happen after the war (and as we shall see in the second part of this article, one of the Bush administration's disastrous errors was its failure to plan for the use of military force to achieve that goal)--but it was not one of the main justifications for the invasion itself.

If you cast your mind back to the long debate over the war in 2002, the primary justification for the invasion of Iraq--and the Bush administration's primary contribution to the debate over the morality of war--was the doctrine of unilateral pre-emption. The main principle used to justify the invasion of Iraq was the need to deny hostile dictatorships and state sponsors of terror access to weapons of mass destruction, a goal which permitted the United States to act pre-emptively and without international permission if necessary. (This last principle was significantly undercut by the administration's repeated declarations that it was enforcing UN Security Council resolutions--even though it did so without the Security Council's permission.)

To this was added another reason why we chose to go to war with Iraq first, rather than with any other hostile nation: we were already actively engaged in hostilities with Iraq. Saddam Hussein had never fully complied with the terms of the truce that ended the Gulf War in 1991, with the result that the US had been forced to keep tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf to deter Iraqi aggression, and US warplanes were trading fire with Iraqi anti-aircraft positions almost daily in order to assert our control over Iraq's airspace.

So the primary justifications for war against Iraq were: to pre-empt the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by a state sponsor of terrorism, and to complete an unfinished military conflict that Iraq was continuing to wage against US forces.

Note that these are precisely the principles we would now need to invoke if we were to wage war against Iran. The Iranian threat consists of much the same mix of elements. Iran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism; it is actively working to acquire nuclear weapons; and it is training, supporting, and carrying out attacks on American, British, and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the political faction currently pushing for a US withdrawal from Iraq is also seeking to prevent America from waging war against Iran. On television yesterday, I saw a group of anti-Iraq-war protesters whose signs read, "End the War in Iraq, No War in Iran"--giving both conflicts equal billing. And notice also that one of Nancy Pelosi's first acts as Speaker of the House was to travel to Damascus to offer America's friendship to the Syrian regime, which is Iran's chief ally in the Middle East.

This is a logical connection, because those who view a pre-emptive strike against the regime of Saddam Hussein as an unjustified act of aggression and "imperial hubris" will reject a strike against Iran (or any other enemy) on exactly the same grounds. Indeed, the left's goal in forcing a withdrawal from Iraq is explicitly to bury the doctrines of unilateralism and pre-emptive war once and for all.

This is the intellectual reason why withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster. It would complete the left's efforts to repudiate any arguments that could be offered to support war against our enemies in the Middle East. It would be the left's declaration of America's intellectual disarmament against the Islamist threat. If we cannot make war on a Middle Eastern regime for sponsoring terrorists, for pursuing weapons of mass destruction, or for engaging in open hostilities against the United States, then we cannot wage war in the Middle East.

But of course, the nature of the Iraq war and the justification for it has changed since it was initiated. Toppling and disarming Saddam Hussein was accomplished quickly in 2003, and if that were all that were at stake, we could have packed up and returned home by now. But that is not all that is at stake.

America has long since demonstrated that it has the military power to quickly topple any hostile regime in the Middle East--but we have not demonstrated the persistence and moral fortitude to do the work that is not quick: the work of establishing a new regime to replace that dictatorship. This is the task that requires American persistence and the moral and intellectual fortitude to endure through a long conflict.

The reason why this task is necessary, and why a self-imposed failure at this task will cripple America in the War on Terrorism, is the issue I will address in the next segment of this article.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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