In a post entitled "Teaching the wrong lesson," Deacon at Power Line reviews another "let's make it simple" piece on the Iraq war, this one by Jonah Goldberg at the National Review OnLine. Though both Goldberg and Deacon recognize that, as Goldberg puts it, "there were lots of good reasons to topple Saddam," each associates himself most strongly with a single simple idea - that the U.S. needed to make an "example" of some country in addition to Afghanistan.
Goldberg enunciates a series of variations on the idea of the new sheriff/new convict/new kid smacking down the worst bad guy/biggest meanest cat/worst bully in order to send a message. For further authority he cites a typically loose formulation from Tom Friedman of the New York Times:
The "real reason" for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world...Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world.
Notice how Friedman's one "real reason" quickly turns into three reasons - "could," "deserved," "right in the heart of that world." Suddenly, the one simple idea turns into the outlines of a complex strategy. It's this kind of messy self-contradiction that has led some observers to accuse Friedman of disingenuousness.
Deacon puts his own position somewhat differently, and more cleanly:
One of the main reasons I advocated going to war was to send a message to other Middle Eastern regimes. The message was something like this: "if you even dabble in terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, we will come after you, and we will do so regardless of what the EU and the U.N. have to say."
To Deacon's credit, he is able to take this line of reasoning another step, and at least face the possibility that he was wrong:
But how does this rationale look now? While perhaps sound in theory, it doesn't seem to have worked out in practice. The unexpected failure to find WMD, coupled with exaggerated but real post-war difficulties, have caused enough erosion of public domestic support for our efforts to "unteach" the lessons of our victory. That is, Middle Eastern regimes now have little reason to believe that we will be coming after them any time soon, at least in the absence of the approval and participation of the EU and the U.N.
As for the "lessons of our victory," these were undoubtedly an aspect of the U.S. interest, though in foreign policy discussion they are usually offered in the language of "credibility" rather than, say, Goldberg's image of "smacking the stuffing" out of a bully. On this score, I'm not so sure the message hasn't been delivered, even if there's little credible threat of follow-on invasions: There never was any likelihood that an Iraqi expedition would be succeeded by a march west, south, or east. The message was one of U.S. committment. A collapse of will could return the message to sender, but that's another issue.
If things are "simple" in Iraq, then they are simple in a different, more general way. There is one truly simple explanation available, but it doesn't tell us much in itself: The U.S. invaded Iraq because U.S. leaders perceived that doing so would be in the U.S. interest. That's the problem with the "let's make it simple" exercise: If your simplism is narrow enough to be meaningful, then you put yourself in danger of simple contradiction. If your simplism is general enough to avoid this danger, then it probably won't be very meaningful.
More important, the key question is almost never Deacon's "how does this rationale look now?" "Now" is trivial. Focusing on "now" leaves you open to one trap after another - overwrought concerns over the post-war state of the military, the belief that a failure to locate battlefield deployable WMDs would exhaust the WMD issue, failure to consider the potential costs of whatever real alternatives to the actions taken, and so on. Even settling the narrowest questions will take a bit more time than has passed at this point - a few more months, or years, or decades.