The conclusion of the Iraq war highlights its many paradoxes
The war in Iraq, now rendered to the verdict of history some 8 years, 8 months, 25 days and a few hours after it began, was a war of epic paradox.
It was a war that was initiated on the basis of intelligence that was wrong. Initially waged as an expression of the doctrine of pre-emption — the idea that, in a post-9/11 world, America couldn’t sit around and passively watch while evil men arrayed the most destructive weapons of warfare against us — we would later learn that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, if present at all, certainly didn’t constitute the type of imminent threat that would demand a pre-emptive invasion of another country.
And yet, for all the inexcusable intelligence failures that birthed the conflict, the war itself was a just and noble endeavor. Saddam Hussein was an evil murderer of mass proportions — a dictator, a killer, a genocidal ghoul. Today, he is dead, and the people of Iraq are the first in a region defined by antiquity to live in a nation governed by the precepts of democracy.
Was the war waged on incorrect pretense? It was. Did the war’s prosecution bring about a just fate for Saddam Hussein and the citizens of Iraq, past, present and future? It did.
After the initial euphoria of “shock and awe” and the fall of Saddam, his statues and palaces, the world would learn that the Pentagon had no real plan for the country’s occupation, reconstruction and democratization.
One doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to appreciate the arrogance and sheer stupidity of invading a foreign place without a plan for its interim occupation and eventual transition. This blunder led to a morass of massive proportions — and the tragic and needless death of many American military lives.
Guided by the foolish conjecture of Donald Rumsfeld that somehow a small and agile force was more likely to achieve a secure Iraq than an overwhelming demonstration of brute-force power, America muddled through the war for years, gaining ground against terrorists one day, only to give it back the next, meanwhile making little progress toward the ultimate aim of a secure Iraq and a timely return of America’s fighting men and women.
Like the meddling, academician politicians in the White House during the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld, Paul Bremmer and their ilk will be remembered harshly for the grave errors in judgment they wrought in the first years of the war.
Paradoxically, though, the war also gave witness to one of the great military accomplishments in American military history — the surge. Gen. David Petraeus’ bold gambit to crush the insurgency and build an Iraqi nation was anything but a sure bet at the time. But “sure” is exactly the word to describe Petraeus’ hand on the rein of the American military during his time, as he navigated a once-foundering force to success and, yes, victory.
In as much as President George W. Bush deserves stinging rebuke for failing to oust Rumsfeld and his failed occupation strategy much sooner, he will reap a positive verdict from history for empowering Petreaus and his surge.
Was Bush stubborn and wrong during the war’s early years? He was. Was Bush’s decision to OK the surge an act of determined presidential leadership? Without a doubt.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of all was what the war taught us about American might. On one hand, America learned that, for all the awe-inspiring power of the American war machine, there is no such thing as a turn-key invasion. Even the most powerful nation in the history of humankind, we were humbly reminded, is constrained by the truth that all power has limits.
Still, even when reminded of this cold reality, America managed to harness the resources and patience to see the job through. There was a moment when prominent voices in our society argued that America should leave Iraq, even if it meant defeat. But in the end, America did not — the truest expression of our enduring might.
As America turns the page on this long, cruel conflict, there is profound disagreement still about the war, and what it means.
Was the war and its prosecution disagreeable in important ways? It was. Was the war, its prosecution and outcome just in the end? It was.
From a war that reasonably supports both conclusions, disagreement is, like the war itself, not likely to quickly subside.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate, and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.