I guess it is something of a rightful comeuppance that so many of us who were so sure about the necessity for deposing Saddam Hussein are now beset with a very complicated series of doubts. History does that to true believers. I confess to what should be called a chastening. But I should still say that the one doubt I do not hold is over whether we should continue fighting this war. We should. The war is indeed a war for our survival. Winning in Iraq is a necessary, but still not sufficient, condition for a future where we are not immediately threatened by an Islamo-fascism armed to the teeth with devastating technologies of destruction. That much I still believe—with a heavy heart but with a resilient grasp of the realities some still want to avoid.
But let's concede some points up front, shall we?
Part of my own reason for wanting to get rid of Saddam was his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Boy, was I wrong. If someone on the other side had been insisting that the intelligence services of every Western nation (and several others) were out to lunch on this question, I could be chided for not listening hard enough. But almost no one was denying it, and I bought the almost universally assumed untruth. That's not the same thing as a lie—and I do not believe we were deliberately misled. But the absence of the primary rationale for the war remains a big deal. In some ways, I think we pro-warriors have not been pilloried enough for that misjudgment. If the war had been argued for in purely moral and geo-strategic terms—without the WMDs—we may well not have won the argument. Have I groveled enough yet?
Actually, no. I should concede some other things as well. The notion of a Saddam–al Qaeda connection in the past was tenuous, although it certainly could not have been ruled out in the future. I had no idea that we would invade with too few troops to keep the peace. I assumed that elementary post-war planning had taken place. I originally dismissed the first reports of mistreatment of prisoners as anti-American agitprop. Again, I knew that there had been a defensible technical decision in the White House that made terrorist captives "enemy combatants" rather than Geneva Convention–protected prisoners of war. But it did not occur to me that the result would be hundreds of cases of unspeakably inhumane treatment of detainees, including up to 100 deaths and the deployment of what can only be called torture in Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Basra, and across an archipelago of secret detention centers around the world.
My only defense is that as soon as I came across evidence of these mistakes and crimes, I did what I could as a writer to protest and expose them. These errors compelled me to morph from a reluctant but subsequently enthusiastic supporter of the Bush administration's war policy to someone who was reduced to endorsing John F. Kerry. I repeat: John Forbes Kerry. Anyone who knows my general feelings about politics and human beings will realize that backing Kerry violated every fiber of my blog-frayed psyche. But I felt I had no choice. And the reason was primarily the execution of the war in Iraq. I guess those who truly believe in certain policies are all the more incensed when they are casually bungled, and then covered up, or arrogantly bullied through. But I was angry enough to endorse the same man backed by, among other low forms of political life, Michael Moore. (My conservative critics will go to their graves claiming I wimped out on the war because of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. Yes, it pissed me off beyond measure. But the mishandling of the war was a far more immediate and unforgivable failing on the part of an administration I had steadfastly supported in the past.)
So am I now going to digest the crow I've just shoved down my own throat and join the anti-war chorus? Sorry to disappoint you.
I'm not going to give you the lame answer: We're already in so deep we cannot just abandon Iraq now. That's a fool's argument. So here's my shot at a better one. The reality of 9/11 was a terrifying one. We faced a fanatical enemy determined to kill any civilization or people who objected to the restoration of a medieval, theocratic dictatorship in the Middle East (and, eventually, as with all such ideologies, elsewhere). We'd ignored or appeased them for years. And then they killed over 3,000 innocents in the heart of the United States. If they had had the means, they would have killed 300,000. If they get the means in the future, they will.
What do you do? In my view, you fight back, remove their base of operations, and kill as many of them as you possibly can. We did that in Afghanistan, a war that many on the anti-war left now pretend they supported. But leaving the matter at Afghanistan was a superficial solution. The fundamental cause of this new, totalitarian ideology—forged in the Egypt of the 1960s—was Arab autocracy and dictatorship. My view was, and is, that only democracy could allow these forces to exhaust themselves sufficiently to remove the underlying threat. I believed, and believe, that we owed it to the victims of 9/11 to craft a root-and-branch solution, not just a quick regime turnaround in a relative sideshow called Afghanistan.
Where better to build an opportunity for a more democratic future than in the cradle of civilization, Iraq? Two-thirds of the country was already protected by our no-fly zones; Saddam was a horrendous despot, whose removal could be justified on moral grounds alone; technically, we were still at war, since he had broken every one of the conditions for the 1991 cease-fire at the "end" of the first Gulf War.
I have already listed my reasons for grave disillusionment with the Bush administration's subsequent conduct of the war. But it also behooves me to say this: Iraqis have freedoms today they haven't had in decades; the January elections were arguably an earthquake in democratic governance that is still producing aftershocks in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, and even Iran. Although physical security is still dismally remote, there are many places in Iraq where reconstruction is beginning, where democratic norms are being instilled, where free people exchange ideas, where the kind of terror we in the West cannot really understand no longer exists.
As much as I regret the errors of the war, I celebrate these new changes. They are real. In the long run, we may well look back and see that it was this leveraging of a tiny democratic space in the heart of the Arab world that saved us from cataclysm. I'm not dumb enough to predict this. But I am still sane enough to hope for it.
The way ahead is undoubtedly brutal and unsure. But let's not delude ourselves that the alternative was that much better: an Iraq pulverized by still more sanctions, poverty, and tyranny or one in which Saddam lived to see another day and could maneuver so as to give aid and comfort to al Qaeda or other terror entities. We chose the better of two options; both were and still are hellish. But this war is young and was always going to last a generation. We owe our government sturdy, even fierce, criticism, but we also owe our civilization support. That civilization—one in which people live free from tyranny and suffocating theocracy—is being fought over in Iraq today. I have not the slightest hesitation in knowing whose side I am on. Our enemy is targeting innocents daily, while we are doing our best to advance their freedom. The Iraqi people told us what they want last January—peace with democracy. We cannot afford to betray either them or our principles now. ■
Andrew Sullivan is the author of the blog www.andrewsullivan.com.