Why to Stick It Out
It is hard to recall, but this effort in Iraq, now an orphan in the court of public opinion, was once a popular war. Consider the numbers: Seventy-seven percent of Americans surveyed in January 2003 favored military action to remove Saddam Hussein. Now a minority of just 29 percent think the war in Iraq is worth the cost. Buyer's remorse has settled upon this war, and in the pundit class and among the nation's congressional representatives, revisionism has taken hold as people flee positions they had taken and rewrite what they had once written. To borrow a celebrated piece of spin, they were for it before they were against it.
This isn't the war they signed up for, some of the new opponents of the war tell us. In truth, history had pampered us: There were American interventions in the Persian Gulf in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999; and there was that swift campaign against the Taliban launched in the shadow of 9/11. These were "virtual wars," affairs of technological mastery. It is the war after the war that frustrates us so in Iraq today. We had toppled a dictatorship, but we could not find our way to the inner recesses of the country. We could not break its code. By our lights, we had delivered the country the gift of liberty, but the ruling minority of Sunni Arabs believed that we had "stolen" the country from them and delivered it into the hands of the Shiite stepchildren of the land and the hands of the Kurds in the hill country. A foreign power good at releasing communities from the burden of the past, and from the limits and confines of narrow identity, found itself deep in the thicket of a culture defined by sectarian loyalties. An innately optimistic America was to be tested in Iraq. Patience has never been an American virtue, and our enemies in Iraq found that Achilles heel.
There was gratitude in Iraq, but it was not expressed in ways that Americans could see, and perhaps there was not enough of it given the scale and magnitude of American sacrifices. A thoughtful man of the political class, Zuhair Chalabi, minister for human rights, and a Sunni Arab from Mosul at that, assured me in Baghdad some weeks ago that his country felt deep gratitude for this American war, but he counseled that it will take time for that gratitude to come to the surface. But time is the critical commodity that this war aches for. Our enemies there have plenty of it, while the American expedition is under pressure to force history's pace.
Paying a price. The burden of this war is that its costs are so easy to see while its gains in Iraq--and in neighboring Arab lands--are infinitely harder to pin down. The truth is that a better Iraqi polity is within reach and that the American presence in Iraq has launched a wider campaign of reform in Araby. To be sure, the American presence has not rid the Arab world of its political malignancies. But there have been gains in Afghanistan and Lebanon and in the Arabian Peninsula. A notice has been served, after the abdication of the 1990s, that a price will be paid by rogues and paymasters of terrorism who run afoul of American interests. It seems like ages ago--American memory is so incredibly short--that our special forces flushed Saddam Hussein out of his "spider hole." An unmistakable message was sent to despots in Syria and Libya, and to more sly rulers nearby who winked at terrorism: America was done with appeasement.
Some eight decades ago, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, gave voice to his deep frustration with Iraq. It was 1922, and the British were bogged down there. They had struck into Mesopotamia in the early days of the Great War, willed the kingdom of Iraq into being, then imported a foreign monarch, the Hashemite Prince Faisal, who had never even set foot in the realm he was bequeathed. To his prime minister, Churchill penned the following: "I am deeply concerned about Iraq. The task you have given me is becoming really impossible. Faisal is playing the fool, if not the knave ... At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano." Today, Churchill's lofty price tag looks paltry, but Iraq remains a magnet, as it was during his time. We can't quit Iraq quite yet. We must, instead, recall the mix of fears and interests that brought us there and the threats that had us look for an Arab setting where we could make our stand.
This story appears in the March 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.