Iraq after Three Years

[1] I supported the President and Congress in their decision to invade Iraq. It is now three years after that invasion. How does that decision stand up? (I have given reasons in other essays for my support of the war and will not rehash them here. Suffice it to say that those reasons draw upon the classic Christian teachings on “just war” and their application.)

[2] There is much about which to be pleased. We felled a nasty, macho, Arab fascist dictator who invaded his neighbors, killed and oppressed large portions of his own people, used weapons of mass destruction on them, and would have presented a regional, if not a larger, threat for many years to come. In so doing we have freed the Kurds and Shia from the miserable shackles Saddam placed on them. Their parts of Iraq are relatively peaceful and in the midst of significant reconstruction.

[3] We have seen the Iraqis through elections on a provisional government, a constitution, and now a formal government seen as legitimate by 66 percent of Iraqis (77 percent of Kurds and 89 percent of Shiites) (University of Maryland poll conducted recently by its Program on International Policy Attitudes). The election dispersed power enough that the Shiites cannot govern alone, and a significant portion of the legislature is Sunni, enough to block high-handed actions. A government is gradually getting on its feet and it appears that large numbers of Sunnis want to join it rather than the insurgency. Violence seems to be abating somewhat as the American and Iraqi military units have adapted strategy and tactics to fit a novel situation. Iraqis are gradually becoming able to field effective police and military units to help check the insurgency and keep general order, though they are not yet able do so without the aid of coalition troops.

[4] All in all, there seems to be a fair-to-good chance that we can help establish a decent, quasi-democratic state there that can become a persuasive model in an area of the world that sorely needs them. Moreover, the Iraqi transformation seems to have had democratizing effects on Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia.

[5] Of course there is much about which to worry, as the electronic and print media relentlessly remind us daily. We have lost over 2000 soldiers in combat deaths with many more wounded, some horrifically. Thousands more Iraqi soldiers, police, and civilians have lost their lives in the ongoing violence. The insurgents seem ready to rely on terrorist attacks on “soft” targets which result in the loss of many innocent lives. Add to that the deaths of thousands of insurgents, and we arrive at a staggering toll. The resistance has certainly been tougher and more vicious than we expected.

[6] The insurgency has destroyed much of the reconstruction we have attempted and brought much of it to a standstill in Sunni areas. Billions of dollars have been spent in the whole enterprise, some of it no doubt wasted. Those billions account for a great deal of America’s ballooning debt.

[7] Most troubling is the sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, which has been intentionally fomented by the insurgency. The country could break apart, which would no doubt mean continued instability and turbulence. A unified, relatively secure, and stable Iraq is certainly not yet a reality, and it will be years before such conditions are achieved, if indeed they will be achieved.

[8] In spite of these worrisome realities and problems, I believe we are making progress in a very unusual and difficult challenge. Many mistakes have been made along the way but that is always true in war, and this one is certainly breaking new ground. I do not think we will fail in Iraq or Afghanistan if American political will remains firm.

[9] That is a big “if,” because the liberal media-as well as the liberal academic and religious elite-have mounted a strong effort to accentuate all the negatives surrounding the Iraq war while they ignore the positive elements that I have mentioned above. Every American death, every mishap, every major attack by the insurgents, and every misdeed by our side is magnified a thousand fold. This has led more and more Americans to believe our efforts there have not been worth the cost. Support for the war has fallen as it has stretched out and the media have done their work. Had it been allowed in World War II, such reporting probably would have made it very difficult to win against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet, those who have borne the greatest burden of the conflict, the Iraqis themselves, 77 percent of them, to be precise, believe the hardships have been worth it. The breakdown: 13 percent of Sunnis, 91 percent of Kurds, and 98 percent of Shiites (from the same study cited above).

[10] It seems that a goodly portion of the left has a stake in our defeat in Iraq. Some hate George Bush so much, it seems that they would rather see his policies defeated in Iraq than give him the satisfaction of being on the right track, which in the future could make him a great or near great president, something they simply could not tolerate. (President Reagan faced the same sort of hatred in the ’80s.) Some on the left are so convinced that our efforts are so sullied by imperialism that they welcome failure in Iraq. Some are even so crude as to think this is all about crude. And a goodly portion cannot get over their conviction that we went to war unjustly and intemperately. They continue to make every effort to undermine the legitimacy of our efforts at home and abroad by relentlessly questioning our reasons for being there. (Only a few honest souls among them admit you cannot “support the troops” without supporting the troops’ cause.)

[11] Fortunately, most Americans have enough sense to realize that we are there and have to deal with reality, not with what might have been. They do not favor precipitous withdrawals, as does the far left. Further, they are able to assess the massive negative effects that failure in Iraq and Afghanistan would bring. For starters, failure would mean that we would abandon those many brave souls among the Iraqis and Afghans who daily risk their lives for a better future. (Remember Viet Nam and the Boat People?) Second, failure to keep our promises and commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan would make us seem weak and unable to take up the new historic challenge to the world presented by militant Islam. Who-especially among our adversaries-would believe any longer in the resiliency of American political will? And such an assessment of American weakness would embolden the Islamic militants of the world to attack with more boldness and confidence. If much of the West is already intimidated by the reaction to the cartoon fiasco, think what will happen if we are found out to be a paper tiger in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[12] For beginners, the rest of the Middle East would most likely fall into the hands of those Islamic militants. Then Samuel Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations” will be a fearful reality, not a contested theory of a Harvard academic.

[13] A whole lot is at stake in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that the American people-as well as both political parties-will support our efforts through to an acceptable conclusion, as will I.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.