The recent decline in violence in Iraq has seems to have given conservatives cover to not only defend the “surge,” but even to attempt to rehabilitate the decision to go to war in the first place.
Preparing the ground, Tony Blankley writes that “in September 2007, more than 19,000 insurgents had been killed by coalition forces since 2003″ :
Of course, most of those 19,000 killed insurgents were not foreign terrorists, but local Iraqis moved to action by our occupation. However, according to studies by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and by the Defense Intelligence Agency, foreign-born jihadists in Iraq are believed to number between 4 and 10 percent of the total insurgent strength. So it is reasonable to assume that we have killed — as of nine months ago — between 800 and 1,900 non-Iraqi terrorists who otherwise would have been plying their trade elsewhere. It only took a couple of dozen to commit the atrocities of Sept. 11.
But no, it’s not reasonable to assume that at all. While it’s probably true that some of the extremists drawn to Iraq would have attacked elsewhere, the evidence is overwhelming that, for the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq, the U.S. occupation itself was the decisive factor in their radicalization and mobilization. It only becomes “reasonable” to assume that all of the foreign terrorists killed in Iraq would have become terrorists absent the American invasion of Iraq if one is desperate to justify a disastrous war, as Blankley is.
Similarly, Peter Wehner, a former aide to President Bush, has also made it his task to defend the Iraq war, and Bush’s legacy, in the court of public opinion. Wehner has several times made the claim that the intellectual revolt within the ranks of Al Qaeda and other Salafist extremists — which I wrote about here — “is happening in part because of events in Iraq” :
The “Anbar Awakening”–an organic Sunni uprising against the brutality of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and which was greatly assisted by the United States military–is a development of enormous significance. Al Qaeda chose to make Iraq a central battleground in the war against jihadism–and having done so, it is on the receiving end of punishing blows, there and elsewhere.
Like a real defense attorney, Wehner depends upon misdirection and imprecise language in order to exonerate his client. As I noted previously, the dissension within Al Qaeda’s ranks was occurring before 9/11, but was given new urgency by the spectacular (and politically counter-productive) violence by Al Qaeda in Iraq. To the extent that the Iraq war itself had anything to do with spurring the ideological debate within Al Qaeda, it’s only because of mass revulsion at the brutality that war itself enabled. I think it’s beyond cynical to claim this as a “victory” for U.S. policy.
It’s true that the Anbar Awakening is a development of enormous significance. It’s also true that Al Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq before the war. It’s also true that the Anbar Awakening “was spurred, in part, by increasing concerns that U.S. forces might withdraw and leave Sunnis vulnerable to AQI and Shia militias.” That is, the credible threat of American withdrawal helped produce the most significant security gains since the beginning of the war.
But what’s missing from both Wehner’s and Blankley’s analysis is any recognition of the staggering costs of this war, either for the Iraqi people or for the United States. Here’s a sample:
- between 100,000 and 600,000 Iraqi civilians killed, and many more wounded
- Over 4 million Iraqis displaced
- over 4,000 American soldiers killed
- over 30,000 American soldiers wounded
- over $600 billion from American taxpayers by the end of 2008
Two other factors to consider. First, not all of the foreign fighters attracted to Iraq by Bush’s boneheaded “flypaper strategy” actually went along with the plan and died in Iraq. After “bringing it on” just like Bush told them to, these extremists are now bringing it all back home, taking the training they received in Iraq to destabilize the region and work against American interests wherever they can.
Second, because of, among other things, the regional destabilization resulting from the Iraq war, President Bush has effectively abandoned his “democracy agenda” and again thrown support behind the very authoritarian governments who were themselves the primary focus of Islamic extremist grievance in the first place. Because of the Iraq war, democracy has once again had to take a back seat to stability.
Wehner’s claim that “the war may well prove to be a net plus for America’s national security interests and for the broader cause of liberty” is therefore not a remotely serious one — unless, I suppose, Wehner is also willing to credit Neville Chamberlain for the “net plus” of West German democracy. We all welcome the recent security gains in Iraq, but even the most generous analysis will recognize that these gains represent a small recoup against massive losses. Any significant progress toward reform in the Middle East that may be brokered by the next U.S. administration will be achieved in spite of, not because of, George W. Bush’s incompetence.