Iraq: The Success That Might Have Been

With the end of the Bush presidency, it is worth reflecting on the most important initiative he undertook -- the deposing of Saddam Hussein and the reconstruction of Iraq. While the success of the surge has led many people to believe that President Bush's policies have been vindicated, the truth appears to be more complicated: the surge has helped to avoid a disaster, but its results have been no substitute for what a consistently competent Iraq policy would have accomplished.

There have been at least three possible results in Iraq. The first was disaster. Had the surge not been tried or not succeeded, and the United State withdrawn its troops, it is likely that a horrible civil war would have occurred, which might had led to the establishment of an Islamic state that was friendly to Iran. The United States would have invaded a foreign country and brought about terrible results. It is hard to imagine worse consequences from a moral perspective or with regard to American interests. Yet, back in 2007, it was a real possibility.

The second possible result is the one that has occurred. The surge was successful and disaster was avoided. There appears to be a real possibility that Iraq will mature into some kind of democracy. The democracy will not be western style, and it certainly will not be perfect. But it would be better than any other government in the Arab world, and it might serve as an important model. One might then regard the Iraqi liberation, given its large costs, as a small success. Of course, there are no assurances that Iraq will not turn into something less desirable. But if events remain on course, one can realistically hope for long term benefits that exceed the costs.

The third possible result is largely forgotten these days, but early on it was possible that the liberation of Iraq would help to transform the region. The United States had just toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan with minimal effort and then quickly ousted Saddam. Tyrants in the region were scared and started to alter their behavior. Most importantly, Libya was concerned enough to disclose and abandon its nuclear weapons program. The Libyan revelations informed the United States about a much more advanced nuclear weapons program than they had ever suspected. But the benefits from invading Iraq extended far beyond Libya. Syria was pressured to withdraw many of its forces from Lebanon, and it seemed like the resulting Cedar Revolution might lead to greater freedom.