The recent 10th anniversary of the United States’ attack on Iraq has prompted a predictable range of reminiscences and assessments of the impact of the resulting war.
It should also serve as a warning against an expanded U.S. effort in Syria, lest we become enmeshed in another geopolitical mess.
In assessing Iraq, liberal organizations and editorial pages and even some more centrist groups predictably denounced the entire effort as an unnecessary war of choice — started under misleading circumstances — that damaged Iraq, distracted from the war in Afghanistan and killed or maimed thousands.
“The Iraq war was unnecessary, costly and damaging on every level,” The New York Times said on March 20. “... The terrible human and economic costs over the past 10 years show why that must never happen again.”
Supporters, by contrast, said that, despite difficulties along the way, the war ultimately succeeded in creating a democratic Iraq. Many also accused President Barack Obama of a precipitous withdrawal that undercut the effort and left Iraq vulnerable to renewed sectarian violence.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched 10 years ago this week, was once a popular war,” noted Hoover Institution senior fellow Fouad Ajami March 19 in The Wall Street Journal. “It was no fault of the soldiers who fought this war, or of the leaders who launched it, that their successors lacked the patience to stick around Iraq and safe keep what had been gained at an incalculable cost in blood and treasure.”
The truth may be in between. Iraqis may be better off in some ways today than they would have been under Saddam Hussein. But the price of getting there has been fearsome, the U.S. and its allies have borne too much of a burden that the Iraqis themselves should have undertaken, and mistakes along the way have extended the war too long and increased the material and human cost too much.
Still, the underlying philosophical debate remains a relevant factor today, because of the growing pressure for Obama to intervene militarily in the brutal struggle between rebel groups and the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad.
In a sense, the geopolitical justification for acting there is somewhat the same as was presented before the attack on Iraq (absent the erroneous claim of weapons of mass destruction): A stable Syria is in the long-term interest of the United States, just as the need for a stable Iraq was one reason for U.S. action there.
And just as Iraq was viewed as a potential threat to its neighbors, a danger based on a false premise, the instability of the civil war in Syria threatens to spill over into neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon and undermine their stability.
Unfortunately, the longer the Syrian war persists and the more desperate the two sides become, the greater that threat will come true. The potential use of chemical weapons adds another possible danger to the region.
But beyond the specifics is the same broad policy question that arose in Iraq: To what degree should the United States intervene in foreign conflicts that only pose an indirect threat and what should be the guidelines and goals that govern any such effort?
It would be nice to think the United States could come marching into Syria with some of its Western allies, ensure the early departure of Assad, help to organize the contending opposition forces and make sure the bad guys like al-Qaida don’t gain too big a role. It’s also unrealistic.
To be sure, there is value in the United States doing things like Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip this week to Iraq, where he urged some restraint of Iran’s efforts to funnel aid into the Syrian government. And it’s useful for the U.S. to organize humanitarian assistance to the victims of the war, both inside and outside Syria, and to help train some anti-Assad forces outside the country on a modest basis.
But beyond that, the lesson of Iraq suggests caution, just as Vietnam did a generation ago, because once a commitment is given to play a small role, it becomes very hard to prevent that small role from getting bigger and even harder to end it.