The Iraq Invasion's Anniversary

I remember the start of the invasion of Iraq well. As it happened I was at a long-scheduled celebratory dinner at Le Cirque, though it didn’t feel that celebratory because the restaurant was nearly deserted. Everyone was home glued to their TVs. Everyone was worried, as I was, that there might be a chemical weapons attack on our troops or some undreamt-of atrocity committed by Saddam. This wasn’t a right-wing plot; it was something that seriously worried journalists who had scored embeds with the invading forces. Jokes about the chemical-protection suits they’d been issued scarcely concealed their fear.

Like so many people I knew, I supported the war, not so much to disarm Saddam Hussein or to stop him from developing WMD, but to free his long-suffering people and promote democracy in the Middle East. We imagined something like the Arab Spring, as it turned out, but we thought we could bestow it on the Iraqis as—in Fouad Ajami’s apt phrase—“the foreigners’ gift.”

That turned out not to be the way it worked. Yes, Iraq is freer today, though it’s still not a place, with the exception of Kurdistan, where many outsiders would choose to live. Its politics look neither less nor more toxic than those of Egypt; Tunisia and Libya are doing better. But so many more Iraqis died than Egyptians, so far.

I only spent three weeks in Iraq, in May and June 2003, but my impression was that the Iraqis were very smart, very hardworking, and generally rational people. True, they were world-class complainers, but I liked almost everyone I met and found Iraqis friendly and welcoming. I had no wish to hang out with other journalists when I was there—the Iraqis I was meeting were much more interesting.

My usual answer to the question of what went wrong is something like this: No one forced the Iraqis to destroy themselves. They chose madness rather than sanity. Despite our hundreds of errors, Iraq would not have become a nightmare if the society had had the social cohesion we assumed it had. There’s a lot of space between backbiting about your neighbor who’s from a different sect and taking a drill to his head.

And why did the Iraqis embrace self-destruction? Fouad Ajami suggests part of the answer: out of shame that we freed them, that they could not. If the Arab Spring countries eventually have bright futures, it will be in part because they did it themselves—though I wonder about Syria, given the bitter and protracted struggle.

Kanan Makiya, in Republic of Fear, suggests another (though the book was written partly to incite the overthrow of Saddam). Baathism had eaten away at Iraqi culture and damaged the society profoundly, leaving a people with no mutual trust and little pride in themselves. They needed time to heal.

To blame the Iraqis for a good part of the tragedy that followed our invasion is not to disrespect them—in fact, it’s a sign of respect. We apportion blame where there is a presumption of moral agency. For me, the moral argument for the invasion was that Iraqis deserved freedom and human rights as much as we do, and had as much capacity to flourish when they were in place. Of course I still believe that. And I believe Iraqis will have those goods some day.

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