The woulda-coulda-shouldas sprang forth on the five-year anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein last week. It was Monday morning quarterbacking, mostly. Pundits confuse their personal brainstorms with history, and pretend they could have carried that football better than George W. Bush did in 2003; or even more bizarrely, they imagine there was no game at all that day. Saddam was obviously harmless, as the media think they know after the fact. 9/11 was a one-time accident. On Monday morning everything is clear.
Rational wars are waged for strategic goals, and yes, Iraq is a rational war. But to understand geopolitical strategy you have to look at a map, understand our life-and-death dependence on oil, face the spread of mass-killing weapons, watch the rise of deeply irrational regimes, and then cleanse your mind of all the cheap sentimental cliches and political spins that are constantly gushed by the media. You have to look at reality.
Fact 1. We were attacked on 9/11/01, and it was not a one-time threat. Both major branches of Islam are fielding their own terror groups. Iran keeps saying it will conquer the world and make the West "bow down" to its greatness. The Sunni Arabs have a similar ideology in the Muslim Brotherhood, which put Hamas on the front line.
Fact 2. Nuclear weapons are spreading. We can argue about the specifics. The general fact is unarguable, and has to be dealt with. Current most dangerous candidates: Iran and North Korea.
Five years ago, given our miserable intelligence, it was rational to suppose that Saddam was close to nukes. (In fact, he kept the capacity and expertise intact). And surprise: It now turns out that Libya was much closer to nukes than we ever imagined. So today we've knocked out two of those plausible threats, with two left to go.
Fact 3. Europe, the United States, China, India, Japan are utterly dependent on a free flow of Middle Eastern oil at market prices. If there is a real interruption in the oil supply, food will be priced out of the range of the poor, hospitals will close, naval battles will take place, people will die. Oil is blood.
Fact 4. In the real world --- not the wishful world of pundits --- you don't know the future. You make your best estimates. You know the CIA has been wrong on every threatening nuclear bomb project since 1949. Sane policy makers don't expect the CIA to penetrate terror states like Saddam's Iraq. So you make your best estimate, and either freeze in place (which is a policy choice) or move. The United States chose to move. Not to act vigorously in the face of 9/11 would have endangered us more.
Question: Why not just stay and fix Afghanistan?
The Democrats think that's a brilliant strategy, which should make all of us very suspicious.
Well, here are three reasons why Afghanistan was not enough:
a. Afghanistan has never been a modern state, with real control over its countryside. It's a coalition of tribes and warlords. Nobody controls more than a province or city. So all you can do is bring enough warlords and tribes to your side to knock out Al Qaida's safe haven, provided by the Taliban. That was done brilliantly by a tiny number of CIA-Special Ops forces on the ground, about 300, combined with precision bombing. It was amazing; it overthrew the Taliban and expelled Al Qaida from that sanctuary, but after that everything is long-term nation building.
b. Al Qaida is a quicksilver enemy, flowing from place to place. Depived of its safe haven in Afghanistan, it simply crossed the border into Pakistan. The Pashtoon tribes who have controlled that area for centuries, in spite of the Brits, the Pakistanis and the Russians, have never recognized that border anyway.
Pakistan is a teetering state with nukes and a huge population. The government is constantly trying to balance between Islamist and modernist forces, like all other governments in the Islamic world. A US invasion makes no sense at all --- contrary to Obama's flight of fancy some time ago.
c. How do you catch Al Qaida and its ilk, given that they were (and are) constantly threatening to pull another 9/11? This is not Imperial Japan, with a homeland that can be bombed. You need to set a trap that will attract all the indoctrinated zealots, so they can be defeated.
d. Iraq was that trap. That is why Afghanistan was not enough. Iraq was already targeted by 16 UN Security Council resolutions, the international stage was set, and the Bush Administration seized that opportunity. Was it opportunistic? Where there any other alternatives? Yes on the first, No on the second.
e. Icing-on-the-cake strategic side-effect.
Next door to Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world, the mad mullahcracy of Ahmadi-Nejad. It's huge, it has a martyrdom military ideology, it's mountainous and easily defended. Iran is building nukes, no matter what message the politicized intelligence community peddles today. Israel thinks Iran will have a nuke in 2009, enabled by the fecklessness of the last NIE estimate.
The strategic icing on the cake of the Iraq War is that Iran is now nearly surrounded by American-dominated countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf (where the US Navy rules the waves), Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and for a possible tip of the spear, Israel. We may not be able to stop Iran's nukes, but we now have sophisticated anti-missile defenses in every country in the Gulf, on the seas, in likely target countries like Israel, and even on the missile trajectory to Europe. Result: The oil supply remains safe, guarded by the US Navy and other US assets.
That is one hell of a strategic accomplishment in the last five years. In the coming years we will see if it is enough to make the Iranians act rationally.
The final woulda coulda shoulda.
Professional army leaders wish it could have been otherwise. Ralph Peters is their spokesman, and he constantly argues we should have gone in with massive force, occupied the country like Germany at the end of WWII, maybe kept the Baath Party in place to control the country.
Just before the war, General Shinseki estimated it would take 400,000 troops to control Iraq completely after Saddam. That's the Powell Doctrine, which says you don't go to war except with overwhelming force. The kicker in the Powell Doctrine is that we didn't have anywhere near 400,000 troops, and the Administration knew damned well there was no appetite for a draft.
So the Powell Doctrine, which leaves army generals looking good, was impossible to execute. We did not have the capacity. Blame Bill Clinton, blame the "peace dividend" after the Soviet Union crumbled, blame the nature of politics. Whatever. It wasn't there.
The Powellites still believe that a massed armed occupation was the way to go. Somehow they never address the fact that it didn't exist. It's a fantasy. Donald Rumsfeld was right on target when he said that "you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had."
So the liberal story is that the Iraq War was all a big blooper, Bush's Folly.
Well, look at the consequences of believing that.
1. Saddam would still be in power, and we would still not know if he had nukes.
2. Al Qaida would not have been trapped in a killing field, after 9/11.
3. Lybia would have had nukes, or very close to it, and be ready to spread it around.
4. Iran would not be surrounded by American-dominated countries.
5. In terms of human rights, 50 million victims of Saddam and the Taliban would still be oppressed.
6. The oil supply would be at risk from both Saddam, Iran, and Al Qaeda (which has threatened terror bombings against it).
7. The United States would look like a gutless paper tiger, afraid of risking lives, just as Bin Laden said. UBL is right about Europe, and he is right about the American Left. They really are paper tigers, like Jimmy Carter. The world is a very rough neighborhood. We can't act like Jimmy Carter and survive for long. Let the Europeans and other crybabies pretend, as long as they know they are protected by us.
The Bottom Line: The Bush Administration took a rational geostrategic action. It was as painful as any war. Wonderful young people were lost. It was terrible.
The alternative would have led to more warfare, as countries like China began to actively defend their oil supplies. It would have made us more vulnerable to Al Qaida and all its hundreds of would-be Al Qaida imitators across the Muslim world. It would have put A'jad's sword at our throats --- more even than it is now.
Were mistakes made? Are human beings flawed and imperfect? Could we have run it better if we'd only known what we think we know today? Yes, and yes, and yes.
Did the United States act as a rational, civilized, responsible, geostrategic power?
Yes. That's the test of Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Truman. It's the test of Churchill. It's what history understands, and it is how history will judge the Bush-Cheney team. They have made the tough choices.
Or do you want to try Jimmy Carter again?