Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Was it worth it?

Q. As you look back at your time in Iraq, can you tell us whether anything has changed since you began your reports? Are you hopeful in any way that the people of Iraq will achieve some kind of peaceful accord so that life for them will be less violent? Will Iran leave Iraq alone so that the people of Iraq can rebuild their lives and their country?
— Barbara M.

A. Well, Barbara, one thing that’s changed, and for the better, is that Saddam Hussein is gone for good, along with his murderous tyranny, and that 25 or 30 million Iraqis are no longer subject to the sickening extremities of state-sponsored brutality — the Murder Inc. — that were the hallmark of his quarter-century in power. That, of course, has become a commonplace point for those who argue, still, that all in all it’s been worthwhile despite the appalling costs that those who committed allied troops to the invasion of 2003 seemed not to have factored into their calculations.

And since this week’s debate among us on the “At War” blog goes to the fundamental issues in contest in assessing the war in Iraq, and whether in any sense it’s been worthwhile, it is perhaps not a bad thing to start by reminding ourselves of what those costs have been: the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed and injured, the total tragically and shamefully unknown; the 4,664 allied troops who have lost their lives, 4,346 of them Americans; the tens of thousands of allied troops who have returned home with amputations and other life-changing injuries; the hundreds of billions of American taxpayers’ dollars, almost certainly a trillion dollars before the last American troops come home; the blighted lives of millions of Iraqis who have lost relatives and friends, fled the country, or suffered years of deprivation, from lost years of education to debilitated hospitals to merciless summers without electrical power for cooling, as well as countless other indignities.

Still, now that the end of the war for America is in sight — God grant — it is worth remembering what good there was achieved by the invasion. In the fury of the debate over unconventional weapons, it has been largely forgotten that ending Saddam’s tyranny for the sake of ordinary Iraqis was one of the justifications offered by President George W. Bush for toppling the regime in Baghdad — one stated in a lower key, to be sure, and subordinate to the argument about the threat Saddam posed with his (as it turned out ) non-existent stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. At the worst moments of the American occupation, between 2005 and 2007, there were many Iraqis, to be sure, who argued that things would have been better if Saddam had never been ousted, for all of the miseries he inflicted. But that was a snapshot, a cry of desperation, if you will, and not, in my experience, a reliable reflection of what the majority of Iraqis believed, in moments of sober reflection. Certainly it was not the view of most Shiites, more than 60 percent of the population, who, with the Kurds, suffered the worst of Saddam’s viciousness, and who were freed by the allied invasion to claim the political primacy denied them for centuries by the minority Sunnis. The short-lived protests at Saddam’s botched and politically tainted hanging in December 2006, even among Sunnis, were a testament of their own on how the great majority of Iraqis felt.

As for where the balance lies in all this — whether it has in any sense been worth it — that’s an issue for history, and for the peoples most deeply impacted by the war: Iraqis, first of all, and Americans, who will no doubt come to a more settled view over the longer term, once we have a clearer sense of Iraq’s future trajectory. That, of course, remains profoundly uncertain. What does seem fair to say is that America, by deposing Saddam and opening the way for Iraq’s fractious ethnic, sectarian and political groups to settle their differences not by the gun and the garrote but through the give-and-take of parliamentary democracy, has opened the door to a better future than was in prospect before 2003. Whether Iraqis will walk through that door is now a matter for them; American influence, though far from spent as long as 130,000 United States troops remain the guarantor of last resort against any near-term return to dictatorship, is waning by the day, and the government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has shown, in numerous ways in recent weeks, that it feels ever more at liberty to ignore American advice and urgings on hot-button political and security issues.

Many leaders — Prime Minister Maliki himself; moderate Sunnis like the vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi; and the most modern of all men who have held senior positions in Baghdad since 2004, Barham Salih of the Kurds — seem to have grasped to one degree or another the lesson that American ambassadors and military commanders have pressed for years, which is that there can be no political stability in Iraq without a fundamental commitment to political reconciliation between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But there remains a dearth of anything that could be called statesmanship among the political leaders in Baghdad. More than five years after Iraqis formed their first post-Saddam government, the fundamental issue confronting the country — agreement on the future disposition of political and economic power among the contending population groups — remains unresolved: Many Sunnis remain unreconciled to a future that strips them permanently of their dominant status, just as many Shiites seem reluctant to concede to their former persecutors the place in the Iraqi sun that will be necessary if there is to be any hope of binding their loyalties to a Shiite-dominated state; and the loyalty of the Kurds to the new state, in many ways, is as conditional as that of the Sunnis. Beyond all the complexities, it is that basic impasse that explains the failure to agree on the future sharing of oil revenues, to settle the dispute over the contested oil city of Kirkuk or to resolve a manifest of other potentially explosive issues.

Without reconciliation, all the gains Iraq has made — a growing economy, for one — will be at grave risk of foundering when American troops are no longer around to act as a counterweight to the sectarian ambitions and vengefulness that remain a powerful and unrequited force in Iraqi political life. That’s a warning that Mr. Maliki, and President Obama, have been given insistently by American officials closest to events in Baghdad — including the present and immediate past U.S. ambassadors, Christopher R. Hill and Ryan C. Crocker, and the present and former American military commanders, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David H. Petraeus. Earlier this month, in a speech to a blue-ribbon audience in London, General Petraeus repeated what he has told Congress repeatedly, that the stunning improvements in the security situation in Iraq in the past 24 months remain “fragile and reversible.” Decoded, what that means is that there is still a real risk of backsliding in the security gains that began with the 2007 troop “surge,” and of Iraq heading back toward the murderous sectarianism that General Petraeus faced when he took command in Baghdad in early 2007. What Mr. Obama would do if chaos set in as the American troop withdrawal gathers momentum next spring and summer could be one of the most testing moments in his presidency, all the more so for the evident fact that most Americans and most American legislators — not to mention many in command ranks in the armed forces with lengthy on-the-ground-experience in Iraq, to judge from my e-mail correspondence — seem to have decided that America has already borne the burdens of Iraq for too long and needs to shift its priorities to Afghanistan.

Already, there has been a frightening increase in the “spectacular” suicide bombings across Iraq that punctuated the pre-surge period, and there seems every chance that Shiite and Sunni extremist insurgent groups will do everything in their power to destabilize the national elections in January, which will determine the government that will be in power as the last American troops leave — a government that will no longer face, if it chooses not to, the imperative of facing the electorate’s verdict when its four-year term expires. As for how Iraq’s neighbors will behave if the worst comes to the worst, that’s anybody’s guess, save for the certainty that countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran — especially Iran, which has already shown its readiness to meddle in the Shiite politics of Iraq, and to arm extremist groups with the armor-penetrating weapons known as explosively formed penetrators that have killed many American troops — are not likely to stand idly by. Six and a half years from the moment when American troops captured Baghdad on April 9, 2003, nothing is settled, save for the fact that Saddam lies buried — and for most Iraqis, unregretted — in a temporary mausoleum in Awja, his hometown 100 miles north of Baghdad.' --John Burns, NYT

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