By lex, on September 2nd, 2010
In the WSJ, Danniel Henninger employs the alternate history strategy to close out the Iraq War, asking, “What if Saddam had Stayed?”
Let us assume that Mr. Obama’s “smarter” view (2002) had prevailed, that we had left Saddam in power in Iraq. What would the world look like today?
Mr. Obama and others believe that Saddam and his nuclear ambitions could have been contained. I think exactly the opposite was likely.
At the time of Mr. Obama’s 2002 antiwar speech, three other significant, non-Iraqi events were occurring: Iran and North Korea were commencing toward a nuclear break-out, and A.Q. Khan was on the move.
In March 2002, Mr. Khan, the notorious Pakistani nuclear materials dealer, moved his production facilities from Pakistan to Malaysia.
In August, an Iranian exile group revealed the existence of a centrifuge factory in Natanz, Iran.
A month later, U.S. intelligence concluded that North Korea had almost completed a “production-scale” centrifuge facility.
It was also believed in 2002 that al Qaeda was shopping for nuclear materials. In The Wall Street Journal this week, Jay Solomon described how two North Korean operatives through this period developed a network to acquire nuclear technologies.
In short, the nuclear bad boys club was on the move in 2002. Can anyone seriously believe that amidst all this Saddam Hussein would have contented himself with administering his torture chambers? This is fanciful.
Admittedly, but this is where Mr. Henninger’s analysis falls apart: The other two members of the “axis of evil” have been allowed to nuclearize, or are on the brink of doing so. If Saddam’s threat had to be eliminated, why do we tolerate Ahmadinejad’s and Kim Chong Il’s? If they can be tolerated, why could not Saddam?
Was Iraq exceedingly more dangerous than Kim Chong Il’s gulag, or the neighboring Iranian mullahcracy? North Korea’s despot class chiefly wants to ensure their own survival, and so their nukes form a weird, asymmetrical deterrent: They are allowed to indulge in provocations, and the South is denied the opportunity to respond. And who knows, perhaps a little off the top could generate some hard currency that goes a long way towards the importation of caviar, champagne and blonds to private parties at the workers’ paradise.
And while a nuclear rivalry between Iraq and Iran would have been problematical, it would have chiefly been their problem. Now Iraq is too weak to act as counter-balance and check Persian ambitions.
We are standing over the graves of 4000 US soldiers, let us at least be frank: We went into Iraq because we thought that a swift victory there was a worthwhile end in itself that could also serve to deter Iran and North Korea from nuclear adventurism. Clearly, we were wrong on both counts: Imposing order, not to mention the semblance of a civil society (far less its institutions) ended up being much harder than practically anyone suspected, North Korea has nukes and Iran is well on the way to joining the club. This is not to question the judgment of those who made our national decisions – we now know things that we could not have known before.
In the early years we told ourselves that by breaking Saddam’s grip we had unleashed pressures that had been bottled up by 35 years of repressive tyranny. After a few years, with our senses dulled by daily scenes of unspeakable violence, we stopped trying to imagine motives: The capacity of some Iraqis and their Arab “brothers” for inflicting barbaric punishment – mostly on their own co-religionists – was hitherto unimaginable.
Granted the stand-up fight, the set piece battle is apparently not quite their form. But find some loser who can’t find a girlfriend, hop him up on heroin and the promise of heavenly virgins and you’ll find any number willing to drive explosive laden buses into crowds of school children. If he won’t do that, there are also jobs to be had setting up pressure plate IEDs and popping off small arms and RPG rounds around the corner. You can’t buy that in Kansas.
We say we “love freedom” and “hate tyranny”, but we had a failure of imagination – political love and hate are abstractions to us, mental models. We simply were not equipped to envision hate on this vector or scale.
Not everyone of course, not all of them. Not even most. But enough.
The “Sunni Awakening” had less to do with any sudden realization of the benefits that US-style democracy might confer, or even any weariness from fighting and much more to do with the realization by the sheiks of al Anbar that 1) al Qaeda was the more lethal threat to their ambitions and 2) the US Marine Corps was the “strongest tribe” with which to ally themselves. The surge brought order to the capital by offering more troops for jihadis to shoot at, who in turn were recipients of (usually much more accurate) return fires and dead men kill no more. It also forced Moktada Sadr – who is cleverer than he looks – to husband his strength and await better opportunities.
We stayed and fought because while the cost of doing so was roughly calculable – another thousand dead, another hundred billion dollars – the consequences for failure were not.
Alternate histories are entertaining. But ultimately, they are acts of fiction.