Spare Iraq empty ideological debates
On the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, the most depressing thing about debates on the subject is that so few people are willing to move beyond the question of whether they were "for" or "against" the U.S.-led invasion. The desire to justify one's 2003 stance, moreover, means that the debate is not only backward-looking but distorted, with told-you-so facts being traded by each side.
On the "anti" side, the prospect of American failure is so mouth-watering that people who should know better seem almost to be willing things to go wrong. The prevailing journalistic narrative of post-invasion Iraq - the term "war" to describe that period is now nonsensical because the real war began after Saddam Hussein fell - is a descent into chaos and inevitable civil war fostered by U.S. arrogance and incompetence.
The weakness of this analysis is that it is as simplistic and flawed as the purported American policy it seeks to describe. Even more seriously, the desire for the U.S. to be humiliated in Iraq is little short of obscene because any failure in the country will affect ordinary Iraqis - who are already dying in horrific numbers - much more directly than Americans or the Bush administration.
Iraqis deserve better than to have their country treated continually as an intellectual or ideological playground for Left or Right. Apart from those with a desire to establish another Baathist style state based on repression and Arab nationalism or, even worse, a radical fundamentalist Islamic state, no sane person can wish for failure in Iraq.
A victory for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the other jihadists responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Iraq, whose victims overwhelmingly are innocent Iraqis, would threaten every Arab state as well as the West. An Iranian-style theocracy, too, would set back immeasurably the cause of Arab democracy and human rights - terms that we cannot allow to be appropriated by American "neoconservatives" or anyone else.
Further major American setbacks in Iraq make it less likely that the Israeli-Palestinian issue will be addressed seriously and could prompt a move toward U.S. isolationism that would serve the interests of no one in the Middle East.
Civil war and the breakup of the country would leave countless Iraqis dead and also lead to greater regional instability. Of course, the invasion of Iraq has already caused much instability - some of it potentially good, disturbing what U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz once described to me as the "stability of the graveyard," and much of it not. But there is little chance of Kurdistan or the Shiite south, let alone the Sunni triangle, becoming viable states.
The good news is that there appears to be some grounds for cautious optimism in Iraq and the Bush administration, for all its manifest failings over Iraq, at least seems prepared to stay the course. It is notable that the September 11, 2001 attacks appeared to banish from the American psyche the "body-bag syndrome" that grew out of Vietnam and helped lead to such flawed policies as those pursued by former President Bill Clinton in the Balkans and Somalia. Despite the 1,500 plus American lives lost, there is no sign of a premature American exit.
While the American presence, of course, helps fuel parts of Iraq's insurgency, to pull out in mid-stream now would be disastrous. There will be a time, and hopefully it will be in a year or two rather than a decade, when American forces can be scaled down. But this cannot be done before Iraqi forces are ready to take the weight.
The January 31 elections in Iraq were clearly a positive development. The sheen has been taken off slightly by the politicking since and the delay in forming a government - but this is as much a portent of the developing of a healthy political culture as anything else. There are many, many challenges ahead but the effects of that vote within Iraq, not to mention more widely, should help put many of the errors of the past behind us. Shiite discipline in the face of murderous provocation has been impressive and militates against the civil war scenario.
Less noticed have been the recent military successes of the Americans, increasingly assisted by Iraqi forces. November's Fallujah operation was necessary (albeit made so by vacillating and ineffective tactics in April) and has seriously degraded Zarqawi's network. The rebuilding of Najaf has been a success story and Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite fighters seem more likely to engage in politics than to take up arms again.
There will be continued difficulties in Iraq and a degree of violence there for the foreseeable future. A neat success and "mission accomplished" reprise is unrealistic. The Bush administration was slow to let Iraqis begin to run their own affairs. They are doing that now and the consequences of failure would be so tragic for all of us that they can hardly be contemplated.
Toby Harnden is chief foreign correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph of London. This commentary first appeared in bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.