The Right Choice, Despite Many Setbacks

In 2001, scientists exploring murky river bottoms in Indonesia found a new creature, the mimic octopus, normally a bland, brown mollusk about two feet long. But by manipulating its tentacles and changing color, it can imitate deadly sea snakes and lionfish.

The two Democratic Party resolutions on Iraq that the Senate rejected last week were mimic octopuses, efforts to imitate a foreign policy. But perhaps Team Bush is also a mimic octopus, promising us a war on terror while leading us into uncertainty instead.

Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed sponsored a bill calling for a “phased redeployment” of troops by the end of this year. It lost, 60-39, with six Democrats voting no (one Republican voted yes). Another bill, offered by Senators John Kerry and Russell Feingold, wanted all troops out by July 1, 2007; that failed 86-13. Since then, The New York Times, the intelligence arm of the opposition, has told us that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., America’s top commander in Iraq, proposes to withdraw more than half of America’s combat brigades by the end of 2007, provided the war is on track. Which raises the essential question: What is the track, and is it worth following? Troop levels should flow from strategy, not the other way around.

The Iraq War is called, dismissively, a war of choice. But what is so bad about that? Surely it is better to fight wars of our choice than wars of other people’s choice. Sept. 11 was a day of Al Qaeda’s choosing, which murdered 3,000 of us and carved a notch in the skyline. We would be better off if we had chosen to topple the Taliban and its guests sooner. Yet even pre-emptive wars have to have good reason, especially in democracies where public opinion must be served.

So, one more time, here is why we toppled Saddam. All the world thought he had W.M.D., and he would not deny it. We never found Hugo Drax’s HQ with the doomsday machine and the blinking red monitor, but Saddam had used W.M.D. before, and he intended to acquire them again if the vise ever relented. Saddam was a patron of terror, in this country (he helped plan the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center) and Israel (assuming Jews have a right to life, which much of the world denies). Those weapons and those methods justify all hostile measures, including war.

What, then, were the goals of the war we began in 2003? Some early supporters of the war believed in minimalism: smash the Iraqi state, kill or capture Saddam and his sons, then go home. My colleague at National Review, John Derbyshire, has been hawking T-shirts that say “Rubble Is No Trouble.” Nice rhyme, not true. Rubble can breed a lot of trouble. Osama bin Laden bunked first in the Sudan, then in Afghanistan, which had little to recommend them besides rubble. The Bush administration’s goals were two: to leave a stable, non-hostile Iraq, and to encourage, by its example, reform in the Middle Eastern world.

The results have been decidedly mixed. The more ambitious of the two goals, Middle Eastern reform, actually seems in somewhat better shape. There is more discussion in the Arab world than there was in the 90’s, not just on Al-Jazeera but on its competing TV network, Al-Arabiya. Lebanon has shaken out its Syrian occupiers like moth grubs out of a rug. There are popular stirrings in Egypt and Iran. Of course, one group that waits to profit from the new margin of openness is Islamic radicalism, yearning to transform free expression into Shariah. But Islamism also flourishes under dictatorship, either as an avenue of protest or as an uneasily tolerated junior partner. Men want self-respect in the modern world; they want, perhaps above all things, to be seen. The old familiar tyrants do not give them faces. They can find a face in Islamic radicalism, even as their wives disappear into burqas. Or they can find a face in liberty. If they are restricted to tyranny and Islamism, rage will be the result.

There is plenty of cut-rate rage in the new Iraq, where bombings have gone up this year. A lot of the wherewithal comes from enemy neighbors, Syria and Iran; thus the pace of regional reform affects local events on the ground. Yet the violence is also self-generated. The majority of the Iraqi people have voted repeatedly for a reformed democratic government. But, more than votes for everyone, democracy needs a balance of factions. Iraq’s different ethnic and religious communities are a possible source of strength, giving the stool three legs to stand on. But all three—Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Shiites—have to want to be part of the stool. There are still too many Sunni Arabs who want to rule, and too many Shiites who want to pay them back for what Saddam did in their name. The new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, declared a state of emergency in Baghdad. Good thinking. He has to show both the will and the ability to crack down on the goons of all sides. This will be his time of testing.

And ours. Of course, the Iraq war has not gone as well as its planners and supporters hoped. “Mission Accomplished,” said the banner that hung behind President Bush on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003, but we are still—we hope—accomplishing it.

The Iraq war is a full-fledged war. One day, its casualties, over three and half years, will equal the casualties we suffered on 9/11. But it is also a battle, or a campaign, in a longer war. Quadrennial elections and the 22nd Amendment guarantee that it will have several commanders. Who but Civil War junkies remembers John Pope or Joe Hooker? Yet at different times these men directed the Union’s fortunes, until Ulysses Grant brought the war home. The mimic octopuses will have a chance to show their true colors.

The Right Choice,  Despite Many Setbacks