Perhaps the recent bombings of and attacks on hotels in Basra, Baghdad, Falluja and Baquba should be viewed in some context. Even if things were going reasonably well, Americans could have expected opposition forces to be able to muster enough resources to create some chaos around the first anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.
Even given that, however, it is difficult to make a strong case that the Iraq operation, especially the occupation that followed the well-executed and successful military invasion, has been an unvarnished success.
Certainly it is welcome that Saddam Hussein, one of the more reprehensible dictators of our time, was ousted from power and has been captured. By most accounts Iraq’s infrastructure — water, electricity, phone service, oil production and transportation — has been improved. And some of the squabbles revolving around how and to whom titular power will be handed when the Iraqis assume nominal sovereignty at the end of June suggest a genuine interest in governance that is essential for anything resembling democracy.
On the other side of the ledger, 556 U.S. servicepeople have been killed and 3,200 wounded, and more have been killed since active military operations were declared over than during the actual war. Iraq is a dangerous place for Americans and for Iraqis who cooperate with them.
Neither military nor civilian authorities have good intelligence, and the country has become a magnet for foreign terrorists. Nobody in authority will say exactly how long U.S. troops are expected to stay there, but the best bet is that it will be measured in years rather than months, stretching U.S. military resources and diverting U.S. efforts from terrorist threats elsewhere.
The war has been deeply divisive, both in this country and in Iraq. A recent Gallup survey shows 55 percent of Americans believe the war was worth it and 43 percent don’t. An ABC News poll of Iraqis shows a bare 49 percent favor democracy, compared to 28 percent who prefer a strong president for life and 21 percent who want an Islamic state. Only 35 percent of Sunni Arabs and 40 percent of Shiite Arabs favor democracy.
The most important lesson, it seems to us, is to make the distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars and resolve not to engage in preventive wars in the future. A preemptive war is justified when you know an attack is genuinely imminent. A preventive war is designed to neutralize a threat that might or might not materialize in the future.
Knowing that intelligence if always imperfect (and it will be even if the failures prior to the war prompt improvements), preventive war is a doctrine unworthy of a free country that wants to remain free.