My Canadian pal Terry Glavin brilliantly answers a ludicrous question. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?”
It seems like a reasonable question, but it's not. We don't have the benefit of hindsight in advance. If we did, my goodness. The entire world would be radically different. The entire world would be so radically different that of course we should have invaded Iraq in 2003.
To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. The whole “De-Baathification” project and the disbanding the Iraqi military? Let’s skip that. It’ll just come back to haunt us all in the worst possible way.
We could play this game all day. Why not ask the same question about Syria? Or the wars on drugs and poverty. The decision to build public housing blocks in Cabrini-Green. Staying out of World War II until after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Putting New Orleans below sea level. Building a house where “we now know” an F-5 tornado would touch down five years later. Electing George W. Bush president. Electing Barack Obama president. Picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. Buying a lottery ticket that “we now know” was a bust.
In real life, we make decisions with the information we have at the time.
Here's Glavin again:
In the orthodox view, “what we know now” is that everybody was wrong back then and the cost was 162,000 dead Iraqis and roughly $900 billion. The lessons we take from this? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people.
Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.
All that, too, is “what we know now.” So what lessons have we learned?
Well, at least two things are perfectly clear. Horrible things happen when we go to war, and horrible things happen when we give peace a chance.
Foreign policy is hard. When it's crunch time, hundreds of thousands of people will die no matter what decision you make.