Leaving Iraq

There’s a genre of fiction called alternative or «what if» history. As in, what if Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee defeated the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg? Or, what if Hitler had not been born?

Or, what if the United States had not invaded Iraq?

That’s a fair question, now that U.S. troops have withdrawn , prompting the question: «Was the Iraq War worth it?»

We well know about the horrible costs of the war: almost 4,500 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and more than $1 trillion spent. But while we’ve heard a lot about the cost side of this equation, we’ve heard not so much about the benefit side. It’s as if there was no benefit.

And a good way to calculate the benefits is to ask: What if President George W. Bush and Congress had decided in 2003 not to attack the tyrannical and murderous regime of Saddam Hussein? With the support of much of the American public.

Saddam, always a destabilizing force in the Middle East, would still be terrorizing his people and his neighbors as he did when he invaded Kuwait. He would have continued to support terrorist activities. He would be in a nuclear arms race with his sworn enemy, Iran. Perhaps he would have renewed the decadelong war he had with Iran. Perhaps he would have been at war again with his own Kurds, gassing them once again. Sunni and Shiite fractures could have bled beyond Iraq, turning the entire Middle East into a sectarian battlefield.

The Iraq War, besides giving Iraqis a chance to live in freedom, broke an unbroken chain of hostile, anti-American dictatorships linking Syria, Iraq and Iran. And made a statement about America’s willingness to use power in its own interests. Only the most naive or ideologically sightless would argue that this benefit does not advance American goals.

This always has been about more than whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. To explain why the roots of the war were more expansive, I turn to Kenneth M. Pollack, a scholar affiliated with the liberal Brookings Institution. In his 2002 book, «The Threatening Storm,» Pollack detailed what options he thought the U.S. had in dealing with the dangerous Saddam, and concluded that the only real option was a full-scale military invasion and rebuilding «Iraq as a prosperous and stable society for the good of the United States, the Iraqi people, and the entire region.»

For those who think that the sole reason for going to war was to discover weapons of mass destruction, Pollack’s book provides a valuable review of the complexities that led up to the war. Pollack, whose book gave liberals cover to support the start of the war, acknowledged that the potential risks and costs of the war were high. But worth it.

The Bush administration’s fault was its failure to adequately plan for «a prosperous and stable society,» believing that all it had to do was throw the bum out. Only the U.S. troop surge, four years after Saddam was literally driven underground, prevented the entire exercise from collapsing into a shambles.

We should not minimize Saddam’s proven human rights violations, as if they ought to be no concern of ours. Only a fool would assert that the Iraqis were better with the «stability» that is sustained by a tyrant’s brutality. With or without weapons of mass destruction, Saddam was a madman.

Pollack, quoted in The Christian Science Monitor in a postwar assessment, said: «The U.S. is not going to forget for a while the botched reconstruction effort in Iraq. The lesson is that invasion is the easy part, while reconstruction is very, very hard and takes a major extended effort. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then you don’t do it at all.»

How true. Bush and his administration wear the jacket for botching reconstruction, but that does not negate the wisdom of removing Saddam in the first place.

Now it’s President Barack Obama’s turn. By summarily withdrawing U.S. troops in the manner he has, he could make the entire effort «not worth it.» And with the first rupture appearing between partisan Sunnis and Shiites the day after American peacekeepers left, it looks like Obama has made a good start of botching it.

By Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer who blogs in The Barbershop at chicagonow.

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