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Another Heavyweight Reexamines Iraq

Some major intellectual heavyweights have been opining on Iraq in recent weeks. To recap: Francis Fukuyama led off last week in the New York Times Magazine, citing Iraq as evidence of the broader failure of neoconservatism and the idea of promoting democracy around the world. Bill Kristol responded that we are in a war not of our choosing, and one that could very well be lost if we don't continue to actively engage on behalf of the principles of "decent, civilized, liberal democracy." Kristol wrote:

To govern is to choose, and to accept responsibility for one's choices. To govern is not wishfully to await the end of history. To govern is not fatalistically to watch a clash of civilizations from the sidelines.

Last week William F. Buckley wrote that Iraq is lost. Today Victor Davis Hanson, fresh off a trip to Iraq, comes to an opposite conclusion in The Wall Street Journal:

In sum, after talking to our soldiers in Iraq and our planners in Washington, what seems to me most inexplicable is the war over the war--not the purported absence of a plan, but that the more we are winning in the field, the more we are losing it at home.

This morning I came across another reexamination of Iraq from one of my favorite authors, Gerard Baker. Yesterday Baker wrote in his blog at The Times:

As Iraq descends deeper into the mire, those of us who supported the war, especially those who supported it as vehemently as I did, and who made large claims for it in advance as I did, have an obligation to explain ourselves. Though our intellectual honour is of no significance in the unfolding misery of a nation, we still have a duty to truth to look honestly at the gap between what we forecast and what has happened and either to re-justify or to recant our belief in a project that has proved to be so tragically flawed.

First let me say what I won't say about this. I won't argue, as so many of the war's supporters now do, that what has gone wrong has all been because of poor execution by the Bush administration. This is a favourite trope: there was nothing wrong in principle with the decision to go to war, it goes. If it hadn't been screwed up by Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld, Iraq would now be fine. In all honesty, this just won't do.

Not that the administration's execution is blameless. Far from it. It was shockingly obvious early on that the US had little clue what it was going to do after the intitial phase of the war. Apart from blithe statements about how freedom would take root as if by osmosis or magic, there was criminally little preparation for the hard postwar task of mending a broken country. The US allowed to sweep into the post-Saddam vacuum - nothing.

Its fecklessness was only underlined by its insistent message when things started to go wrong. "We're sticking with it. It's working." has been essentially all the administration has had to say, despite mounting evidence that it was not working. And for the last couple of years US policy has actually been bent primarily to the objective of getting out as quickly as possible.

For all of these reasons the administration deserves to be roundly condemned.

But it's simply a cop-out, I think, for the war's supporters to say its conception was brilliant but its execution a failure.

It's a cop-out because of the uncomfortable fact that many of those who opposed the war said at the time that certain things would follow - a bloody insurgency, a lethal inter-ethnic struggle, broader damage to the US cause in the Middle East. I, certainly, and others, downplayed - all right, dismissed - these arguments.

And now? They were right and I was wrong, But I was wrong not just because Donald Rumsfeld didn't send in enough troops, or Paul Bremer didn't allow elections quickly enough, but because the risk of long-term violence and instability was always greater than I had believed; building stability in that ruined country was going to be a tall order.

Does this mean the war was wrong? Am I recanting?

I've already quoted too liberally from the post, you'll have to click through to read Baker's conclusion.

My own impression is that it's still to early to judge the ultimate outcome in Iraq. Clearly the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque has created a watershed moment that history will most likely record as a turning point one way or the other. Either Iraq's nascent government can withstand the current crisis, thereby emerging stronger, or it will be destroyed by it. The answer will be played out in the coming weeks.