Five years ago this month, American troops liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Then came the hard part.
American intelligence had been wrong about Saddam’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction: They were nowhere to be found. Most academic experts had failed to perceive the currents of religious extremism and sectarianism running just beneath Iraq’s secular surface. State Department consultants and U.N. advisers proved unequal to the task of building democratic political institutions quickly from scratch.
The media had understated Saddam’s barbarism: It had been too risky to report in depth on the mass graves he filled with dissidents; the tens of thousands of Kurds gassed to death in their villages; the camps where he trained terrorists for assignments abroad. As a consequence, few anticipated how severely Iraqis had been traumatized.
And America’s military, so adept at bringing down a dictator, was unprepared for the “small war” that would follow: terrorist attacks on innocent Iraqis that the “international community” would blame not on the perpetrators — but on America.
Like most military strategists of the late 20th century, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld envisioned wars of the 21st century as akin to computer games. Advanced technology, more than blood and sweat, was supposed to be decisive. And in a place like Iraq, it was believed, the U.S. “footprint” should be as light as possible because close proximity to American soldiers would surely incite the natives to violence.
The result of so many errors and misjudgments was catastrophic. Three years after the liberation of Iraq from Saddam, much of the country had been taken over by al Qaeda. Other areas were under the sway of Iranian proxies, in chaos, or close to civil war.
Iraq’s military had been disbanded by the American envoy at the time, L. Paul Bremer. America’s forces were cooped up in heavily guarded Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) waiting for actionable intelligence that seldom arrived. When it did, they would drive down roads that their enemies had lined with bombs.
Finally, after the 2006 election rebuke to President Bush, a new defense secretary, Robert Gates, was assigned to the Pentagon, and a new commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, was deployed to the field of battle. American forces set out to liberate Iraq for a second time.
The Petraeus strategy was nothing if not counterintuitive: He gave the enemy more targets and assigned them to more vulnerable positions — outside the well-guarded FOBs and in the shadowy streets. But once the Iraqis understood why the Americans were there — to defend them from terrorists — they provided a wealth of intelligence. Before long, Americans and Iraqis were fighting side by side against their common Islamist enemies.
That was historic. It should have been big news. But the media were not much interested. As one well-known reporter told me: “It doesn’t matter.” The important action, he said, was taking place not in Baghdad but in Washington, where politicians were reading the polls and finding Americans discouraged and ready to cut their losses.
What’s more, such groups as MoveOn.org — heavily invested in an American defeat they could blame on Bush, Vice President Cheney and the “neo-cons” — had a well-funded plan, “Iraq Summer,” that was to make it politically untenable for members of Congress to continue to support the Iraq mission.
What this perspective failed to take into account: The startlingly rapid progress that Petraeus and his troops would make against al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed militias. That was coupled with a battle of ideas on the home front: Tenacious pro-mission groups — such as Vets for Freedom, Families United, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Move America Forward, Freedom’s Watch — formed a loose but effective coalition that matched MoveOn.org for congressional contact, and told the stories most reporters would not.
One can say the invasion of Iraq was unwise: Before committing troops to battle, a president should have a realistic understanding of what can be achieved, in what time frame and at what cost. One can say the occupation of Iraq was bungled.
What one cannot say is that regime change in Iraq was unjustified — not if you know Saddam’s record, his clearly stated intentions and his ties to international terrorists. These include, as a new Pentagon report reveals, a group headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda’s second-in-command.
Nor can one say that the outcome in Iraq — the heart of the Muslim Middle East — will be inconsequential to the outcome of the wider war being waged by militant, supremacist Islamist movements intent on nothing less than the destruction of America and the West.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)