April 17, 2008
The Two Wars in Iraq & Mistaken Republican Support for Obama
Bush screwed the pooch in Iraq. There is a good argument to be made that we should not have invaded in the first place.* There is no good argument that we should leave.
This conclusion is inevitable when one comes to the same realization as me. There was a war in Iraq and there is a war in Iraq. In fact, we've had two wars in Iraq: Iraq War I & Iraq War II.
The war now is not the same as that war. The first war in Iraq was against Saddam Hussein, the second war is against Islamists of various stripes, but mainly al Qaeda.
Many of the arguments used by those who keep reminding us that Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a mistake are valid. While Saddam Hussein strategically supported groups linked to Osama bin Laden, there was not a substantial al Qaeda presence in Iraq prior to the invasion. Ansar al Islam, the main Sunni Islamist group in Iraq prior to the invasion that would eventually morph into al Qaeda in Iraq, operated nearly exclusively in the Kurdish north---a zone not firmly under Hussein's sovereignty.
All would agree that the invasion liberated Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. That was the First Iraq War.** It ended the day Saddam Hussein was captured.
The post-invasion period subjected Iraqis to the tyranny of chaos. The vacuum left by the Baathist police state was filled by yet another tyranny: the tyranny of Sunni Islamists, like al Qaeda; and the tyranny of Shia Islamists, like those following Muqtada al Sadr. This is when the Second Iraq War started.
The first war was against Iraq, a nation-state. The second war is against terrorists and Islamist rebels.
It is true that mistakes made in the first war led to the second war. It may also be true that our national security was not enhanced by that first war.
But the first war is over. We won. Handily. Easily. It's history.
Failing to see the two war distinction is critical. From Obama we hear that he was "against the war" from the beginning. From Clinton we hear that she "changed her mind on the war sometime after she realized that the war was a mistake."
Continuing to allow politicians to criticize the war in Iraq by criticizing the decision to topple the Hussein regime is to allow them to conflate two very separate issues: 1) should we have invaded Iraq? 2) should we now give up fighting al Qaeda and anti-government Islamist elements in Iraq?
Answering no to question number one says nothing about how question two should be answered. Nothing.
The Second Iraq War may have been of our own making, but it is the very war the Democrats say they want to fight: a war against terrorists.
In fact, until recently our greatest enemy in this Second Iraq War has been al Qaeda, the very people that all Americans claim as common enemies.
Failing to see the two war distinction has led to much confusion and obfuscation. The vast majority of criticisms about Bush's handling of post-war Iraq can be equally leveled at Bush's handling of post-war Afghanistan.
In both countries there is a weak central government engaged in a protracted civil war against Islamist rebels with no end in sight. In both countries the removal of U.S., Coalition, and NATO forces would almost certainly lead to a failed state and return to anarchy. In turn this would lead to pockets where Islamist friendly to al Qaeda would give them free reign to open training camps. The exact conditions that existed in Afghanistan just prior to 9/11 and which existed in Iraq from the fall of the Baathist state until last year!
If the results of a U.S. withdrawal would be the same in both Afghanistan and Iraq, then why is there so much focus on removing troops from Iraq and not Afghanistan? Partly it is because we continue to speak of the war in Iraq as a mistake because we should not have invaded in the first place. While we continue to speak of the war in Afghanistan in terms of the decision to invade being correct.
Many in American cannot get over that initial mistake. And because we lack the vocabulary to distinguish between the initial mistake leading to the First Iraq War, we are unable to separate our feelings about it from the Second Iraq War.
After years of support for the war, some in the center and on the right have decided that the initial invasion of Iraq was a mistake. They feel like their initial support was in error or that they were duped [notoriously, John Cole]. Lacking any other vocabulary, they lash out at the war or at the Bush Administration for starting it.
Because McCain supports the war in Iraq they have no other recourse than to support Obama who was against the war. A vote for McCain is a vote in support of the war, which they now see as a mistake.
What they do not see-- and in fact cannot see, because how can you see what you cannot articulate? -- is that they are voting to end a war that is already over! Simultaneously, a vote for Obama is a vote to end the very war on terror that they claim they fully support!
It may seem hypocritical that one could support the war against terrorists in Afghanistan but not the war against terrorists in Iraq, but it's not. As long as we continue to speak of the war in Iraq a large proportion of people will conceive of it in terms of the same war as the one to topple Saddam Hussein. They are not being internally inconsistent, but completely consistent. They do not support the war in Iraq because it is the same war they believe was a mistake.
We must begin to speak of two Iraq wars. The two wars conception is more precise. It describes what has happened and what is happening in Iraq more fully than speaking of the war. It clarifies many of the debates surrounding the present war as well as allows us to conceptually think more clearly.
Further, the only way to convince war skeptics that winning the present war in Iraq is in our national interests is to give them the linguistic tools for being able to conceive of it as separate from the first war, even if it flows from it.
The First Iraq War may have been "optional", as many of the critics say; but the Second Iraq war is not. We must win it. The price of victory may be high, but the price of defeat is higher.
*There are also good arguments, in my estimation, that the decision to invade Iraq was correct.
**There may be an argument that Iraq I was an extension of the Gulf War in the same way that some view WWII was an extension of WWI.