For some reason or another, a series of enormously important issues — the future of the Middle East, the credibility of the United States as both a strong and a moral power, the war against the Islamic fundamentalists, the future of the U.N. and NATO, our own politics here at home — now hinge on America's efforts at creating a democracy out of chaos in Iraq. That is why so many politicians — in the U.N., the EU, Germany, France, the corrupt Middle East governments, and a host of others — are so strident in their criticism, so terrified that in a postmodern world the United States can still recognize evil, express moral outrage, and then sacrifice money and lives to eliminate something like Saddam Hussein and leave things far better after the fire and smoke clear. People, much less states, are not supposed to do that anymore in a world where good is a relative construct, force is a thing of the past, and the easy life is too precious to be even momentarily interrupted. We may expect that, a year from now, the last desperate card in the hands of the anti-Americanists will be not that Iraq is democratic, but that it is democratic solely through the agency of the United States — a fate worse than remaining indigenously murderous and totalitarian.
The above paragraph from Victor Davis Hanson's latest essay on Iraq was "thought for the day" at AndrewSullivan.com, and it might well have been the thought for virtually any day over the last several months. With relatively minor alterations it could stand as a leading candidate for thought for the year, and quite possibly as thought for the decade, thought for the generation, even thought for the century.
Except for the opening phrase: "For some reason or another" may have been intended ironically, or it may just reflect a bit of sloppiness. It certainly cannot be taken at face value, for Hanson has shown himself as aware as anyone, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his bosses, that the installation of Iraq at the center of U.S. policy was not random or happenstantial, but if anything overdetermined. The intersection of the multiplicitious "enormously important issues" that Hanson lists, but does not exhaust, is the inevitable reflection of the multiplicitous causes of war. Indeed, his summary rather conspicuously ignores or at least suppresses the issue of energy resources, which many would reflexively put at the top, and not only because of direct U.S. interest in oil and oil price stability. The geostrategic outlines have been drawn publically, and can be pieced together from Bush Administration statements, but for various good reasons the Administration has been reluctant to dwell on them or to emphasize them too forcefully. It has refrained from frightening observers any more than they were already frightened by the events of 9/11, and it has seen no advantage in placing the wrong kind of public pressure on regimes whose participation in the unfolding war can still be shaped more favorably.
Geology, geography, and geopolitics ensure that the fate of Iraq remains critical to U.S. and the world's interests, just as they also made a Baathist Iraq into a very well-financed threat to those interests. On this score, as typically for an overdetermined strategic interest, each discreet danger acts as a multiplier in relation to each and every other danger. Oil money armed Saddam. A well-armed, well-financed Saddam could directly threaten oil resources in Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and the Arab Emirates, and destabilize and otherwise pressure local U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. A well-financed and well-armed regionally dangerous Saddam could escalate his aggression toward Israel even beyond his former support of suicide bombers. Iraq's situation also gave Saddam tremendous leverage against the rest of the world. At the time of his regime's removal, he had already exposed the weaknesses of two premiere global security organizations, the U.N. and NATO. Any further success on the world stage would have in turn magnified his own regional influence again. This bad synergy of mutually reinforcing threats is exponential, not linear - less like a row of dominos leading to a single endpoint, than like interconnected nodal failures on the way to a network crash.
The elements of this scenario were all visible in the first Gulf War, and, like actors playing different characters of the same general type, they re-appeared again in the sequel, and have undergone yet another costume change for the aftermath now showing in the same theater. At the time of Gulf War 1, the main threat appeared to be Saddam's own aspirations for regional domination, as joined to a direct challenge to an international system based on inviolable state sovereignty. The important fact about Baathist ambitions was not so much that they were grand, but that they were not entirely unrealistic. Following Gulf War 1, those ambitions were put on indefinite suspension, but issues of regional and international influence remained very much in play. Containment was deemed require the stationing of U.S. troops within the borders of Saudia Arabia, and the extended political and economic deprivation of the Iraqi people under U.N. sanctions - both measures serving to inflame regional and international attitudes, especially wherever Al Qaeda sought recruits.
For these reasons, or the broader strategic situation comprised in them, it is foolish to criticize those Americans who in large majorities have regularly replied to pollsters that they believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. There is even less reason to attribute the existence of these beliefs, as many on the left habitually do, to some nefarious Bush Administration campaign of guilt by false association. The Bush Administration could not have been more explicit about its arguments that 9/11 changed its approach to Iraq. At the same time, it is impossible to conceive of Al Qaeda as it was ca. 9/11/01 without including the prior history of US relations to Iraq. That these two avowed and proven enemies of the U.S. were, for their own part, completely aware of their external, objective connections has been confirmed by independent researchers and reporters such as Stephen Hayes as well as by various government intelligence services. Even the New York Times article of several months ago that, through leaks from CIA interrogations of captive Al Qaeda leaders, attempted to debunk the notion of a Saddam-Al Qaeda "alliance," implicity confirmed contacts and negotiations. In other words, Dick Cheney did not, as so many on the left have charged, "lie" or "mislead" or "goof" when he said he could not deny a Saddam-Al Qaeda link: No honest, informed observer could say anything else. That he and the American people generally have maintained their suspicions, even against a massive counterpropaganda campaign in all the major media, is proof of their intuitive strategic insight and stubborn good sense, and of the lack of same in their self-superior critics.
Even without reference to specific historical actors, events, and interconnections, the course of recent history almost amounts to an exercise in physics: The U.S. yielding precisely the surpluses - in military power, wealth, technology, civil society, and so on - required to fill the Middle East's abhorrent vacuums. For a number of practical and historical reasons, Iraq was always the best and most likely first stage in the inevitable project to re-make the region, though events in Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Iran, or Jordan could also conceivably have forced our hand. If, assigning further values to the equation's main variables, we accept further that Al Qaeda and all that it represents were bound sooner or later to provoke a strong response, and that any expedition to Afghanistan alone would be unlikely to suffice in eliminating the threat, then a U.S. strategic initiative begins to look inevitable, and Iraq again looms large as a militarily and politically intolerable complication, second as necessary staging area, and third as independent threat in its own right.
All of those "enormously important issues" mentioned by Hanson, and several other issues as well, were built into the Iraqi challenge and into this moment in history long before George W. Bush assumed office, and any discussion of the war's justifications and outcomes not undertaken in this context simply cannot be taken seriously. If some failure of will, imagination, or insight in the wake of a major terrorist event had forestalled a recognition of strategic imperatives, then the war might conceivably have been deferred, perhaps for years, probably to be fought at much greater cost and under less favorable circumstances, but some version of Operation Iraqi Freedom would inevitably have been tried, if not by our current president, then by one of his successors.
To reprise the earlier networking metaphor, Gulf War 1 was an improvised fix intended to preserve systems integrity; troop deployments, no-fly zones, and U.N. resolutions, inspections, and sanctions were temporary patches; Gulf War 2 has unfolded as an attempt to re-engineer and re-boot after replacing failure-prone hardware. With or without a Gulf War 3, the next step may require a total overhaul of the entire network - or even its full replacement. In addition to being immensely costly in itself, such a project would probably involve the suspension of services (peace and economic development) to most if not all clients. It would aim for resumption of business under conditions somewhat resembling previous ones, but there could be no guarantee of success.