Ponder for a moment a hypothetical past: it is late 2002 and the United States announces it is ending its buildup of military personnel in Kuwait. Several months later, President George W. Bush decides against abrogating the Ba’athist regime. Weighing the pros and cons of such an adventure, President Bush’s closest advisors counsel not to intervene in “internal Iraqi affairs.”
Envision this scenario, where once more, somehow, Saddam Hussein had managed to survive.
Those of us who championed Hussein’s removal — particularly those of us who haven’t served in Iraq and who have not endured personal sacrifices — routinely go through a similar intellectual exercise within our own minds (at least, I shall speak for myself).
It is a sobering thing to verbally defend the wisdom behind an action which has directly led to the death of tens of thousands of innocents and thousands of fellow citizens, an action which has lasted far longer than most had expected, generating more casualties than most had anticipated. It is an exercise which encompasses all parameters of introspection, probing into intentions and consequences, as well as the justification and necessity of actions undertaken.
The Iraq battle — part of the much larger, regional Long War which ensues to this day — is now, thankfully, reaching something resembling an end. Through grit and perseverance, it seems as if we will end up on the winning side.
All of this raises the question: disregarding one’s initial support for, or opposition to, the decision to go to war, knowing what we now know, if you could … would you take it all back?
This sort of theoretical question requires some elaboration. How much power can we wield, here? Is it a “mulligan” we are permitted to undertake? I know of not a single person who favored the war that would not take up the opportunity to have a do-over intervention, granting our policymakers the chance to avoid the mistakes they may have shortsightedly advocated in 2003-04 — only to fully appreciate the error of their procedures in 2005-06 (the WMD fiasco, setting up the CPA, not stopping the looting, an insufficient postwar effort, inadequate troop levels, the state of the infrastructure, ignoring Iranian meddling, the first flight from Fallujah, the initial pardon given to Sadr, Abu Ghraib … must I continue?).
Or is this ultimatum a matter of either taking down Saddam’s twisted lunacracy or allowing it to live on unfettered? Considering this is the more pressing choice, this theoretical circumstance should be the basis of our question.
It seems as if this is more a matter of preference than justification. It is certainly fair to suggest that had the war gone smoother — had it ended weeks, not years, after it began — more Americans, despite whatever merits they thought the war lacked, would presently view the decision to go to war in a more favorable and justifiable light. But why is this so?
Surely an easier experience would have altered how preferable we would have viewed the conflict. But what does difficulty or easiness have to do with objective justification? Why do we allow, however subconsciously, the simplicity of an event to modify how we judge its validity?
Invading Barbados or Saint Lucia would invariably be easier — fewer casualties and in quicker time — than a military confrontation with, say, North Korea or Sudan. Difficulty reveals nothing about the morality of an action. Some of the bloodiest battles throughout our history have been our most necessary and momentous.
Nevertheless, it is fair to encourage opponents of the intervention to go through the same process of contemplation and to make peace with their own intellectual quandaries as well.
Precisely what — they should all be asked, as we ask ourselves — do they feel would have happened had the U.S. opted not to overthrow Saddam six years ago?