Joshua Keating has a good post exploring the significance of Steven Colbert’s Iraq tour and his stint as guest/stunt editor of Newsweek. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Keating in calling Fareed Zakaria’s cover story on “victory” in Iraq “the kind of goalpost moving that Colbert has relished mocking for years,” but I do think the use of the term “victory” is troublesome — not least because it plays into the narrative of the war architects for whom the key goal of the surge was the salvaging of their reputations. We should note, however, that the word victory only appears in the article’s title (over which writers have notoriously little control, though I would suspect a star like Zakaria has quite a bit more), and that much of what Zakaria reports strongly challenges the idea that the word applies to what has been achieved. While U.S. and Iraqi forces may have admirably clawed Iraq back from the brink of total collapse, the costs of the war so staggeringly outweigh its benefits (most of which remain in the realm of the potential) that there is no moral or political calculus by which the decision to invade can reasonably be called the correct one.
American influence is not what it was a few years ago. Yet America still has enormous leverage with a government that relies on U.S. forces for its basic security and well-being. The question is whether the Obama administration will use this leverage in a focused and purposeful way.
The reason to do so is simple. How Iraq evolves in the next few years will define America’s legacy there. After all, there were no weapons of mass destruction. The costs — in blood, treasure, anti-Americanism — have already been paid. All that is left to redeem the mission is the hope of a decent outcome — a democratic Iraq that represents a new model of Arab politics, one that does not force its citizens to choose between a repressive regime and an extreme opposition. But for that to happen, Iraq must become an inclusive democracy for all its people. Its potential as any kind of a model rests largely on this evolution.
On the contrary — while our forces remain in Iraq by the tens of thousands, while takfiri terrorists continue to employ and spread tactics and technologies developed in the Iraqi training ground we provided them, and while Iran continues to expand and strengthen its regional influence as a result of our removing their greatest enemy, we will continue to pay the costs of the war.
Zakaria writes that “Arab regimes paint a picture of Iraq that suggests that American-led democracy has led to chaos, collapse and, perhaps more crucially, to Shiite tyranny. This is a damning indictment because for the rest of the Arab world — which is overwhelmingly Sunni — it suggests that democracy is something to be feared.” I think this is right, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t take much of a propagandist to convince people that the limb-strewn and blood-spattered marketplaces that they see almost every day on Al Jazeera are not preferable, or that a political system that produces such outcomes is sub-optimal. The greatest portion of blame for the disrepute into which democracy has fallen in the Middle East belongs to the president who undertook to remake Iraq as a shining example of it.
I do agree with Zakaria, though, that the manner in which President Obama manages the U.S.-Iraq relationship is hugely important. Acknowledging that the invasion of Iraq was and remains a major U.S. foreign policy blunder shouldn’t blind us to the potential ways in which a genuinely democratic Iraq could positively influence the region. I only advise against using words like “victory” in the hope that it will help us avoid trying to reproduce this experiment, and this policy, elsewhere. Ever.