October 24, 2006 | National Review Online

Is Iraq a Worthy Cause?

Even conservatives are now starting to become almost irretrievably saturnine in their pessimism on Iraq. On National Review Online last week, Jonah Goldberg wrote that “the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003.” Across the political spectrum, people have come to a similar conclusion, but the judgment contains several propositions worth examining closely.

First, the issue of weapons of mass destruction. If we had known in 2003 that there were no WMDs we obviously would not have gone to war — but this skips right past the central point. Our best intelligence told us that it looked very much as if Saddam Hussein had all sorts of banned weapons, so unless Hussein could prove otherwise, it would have been criminally negligent for the president to draw any inference other than the one he drew. And because Hussein couldn't prove otherwise, and because the Security Council resolution that sent the inspectors back into Iraq made no provision for an inconclusive inspections result, it was obvious that Hans Blix was just going to tool around Iraq forever, concluding nothing except that he needed more time. This was the best-case scenario from Hussein's point of view, and the worst from ours. So with respect to WMDs, a military occupation was necessary to prove that a military occupation was unnecessary — a wonderful paradox for Blix to contemplate in his retirement.

Second, the “disastrous” occupation. If we had known in 2003 that Iraq's security forces would completely and instantly disintegrate, and that we were going to have to build them back up ourselves in the course of a long and bloody occupation, we might indeed have hesitated to invade. But all wars bring tragedies and costs nobody could have anticipated. Yet even now, many Americans have turned against the war not because they've decided that democracy in Iraq wasn't worth the sacrifice, but rather because they have grown pessimistic that democracy can succeed there. But as bad as the security situation is, I think Americans would feel differently if they knew the tenor of the political debate in Iraq — how effectively every major issue is getting debated in the legislature, in the government, and in the press. Amidst all the violence, the democratic debate continues, and it is already sinking deep roots into the Iraqi psyche.

I hate to call for a parade in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the fact is that democracy — the political process of self-government — is plainly succeeding in Iraq. The violence has slowed it down, but has not been able to stop it. Indeed, the reconstruction effort remains much more vast than the insurgency, which has never been able to achieve national scope and will never achieve national unity. People should avoid concentrating on the spectacular violence: It may rage for years without ever achieving lasting strategic significance. And U.S. policymakers should avoid acting in desperation, as, for example, by putting pressure on the Iraqi government to disband the armed militias. If made regularized and transparent, those militias could prove to be part of the bedrock of regional security and local self-government in Iraq. Indeed, they are already performing many essential services. What matters is the scope, capacity, and stability of Iraq's governing institutions — and in many cases those include the militias.

The question that remains for us is this: At what point will Iraq's central government be able to survive our departure? How will we know that we're there?

The exit strategy is to withdraw from active security operations as the Iraqis take over — and then withdraw from Iraq. This process is already advanced — and is advancing rapidly. The U.S. has already largely withdrawn from widespread combat operations in Iraq. The recent spike in U.S. casualties is most of all the result of increased focus and engagement in the few major trouble spots. Next, we have to start withdrawing from regular security patrols, further consolidating our forces in a few major bases.

The violence may continue, but if the revanchist Saddamist insurgency remains fractured, localized, and focused on killing Shiites, the government is not likely to fall. Meanwhile, the Shiite militias are not fighting the government, and the Kurdish militia isn't fighting anybody. Once it becomes clear that the government won't fall, our forces can come home. And if that is the tale of 2007, then by this point next year many Americans will be able to say “Knowing what I know today, I think it was worth it.”

As General Douglas Macarthur said about Japan, “occupation is a wasting asset.” We will soon hit a point of rapidly diminishing returns in our effort to help the government of Iraq stand on its own. But those returns are not diminishing yet, even with Baghdad caught in a paroxysm of violence. In the meantime, let's give the Iraqi government a chance. Two years ago they had no forces of their own. Now they have 300,000 troops. Those are real numbers, and they are taking real casualties — now many more than we are. They need our help, and are proving worthy of it. And the benefit of having a democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East will prove priceless long into the future — which is why al Qaeda has made this the central front in the War on Terror.

Mario Loyola, a former Defense Department consultant, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.