Exit Strategies

"Things Could Always Be Worse..."

David Frum looks back and still thinks the Iraq War was a good idea. He asks us to imagine a world where the invasion never took place.  Fair enough. 

As president, George Bush assessed his options in 2002, oil prices averaged less than $23 a barrel. These low prices had squeezed Iraq’s income and therefore Saddam Hussein’s power.

But war or no war, the price of oil would zoom upward in the 2000s. China had more than 90 times as many cars on the road in 2010 as in 1990. Chinese oil imports grew 7.5% a year, Indian oil imports only slightly less fast. Soaring oil demand from China and India pushed prices higher and higher: averaging $28 a barrel in 2003, $38 in 2004, $50 in 2005, $64 in 2007 and $91 in 2008. A surviving Saddam would have been a wealthy Saddam.

Not only wealthy, but empowered. The international sanctions regime had collapsed in the late 1990s, freeing Saddam to import more or less what he wished, potentially including the instrumentalities of war...

It seems incredible that a Saddam still in power in the 2000s, unconstrained by sanctions and enriched by Chinese and Indian oil money, would not have tried a third time. Even if Saddam had not sought to build a nuclear bomb, an additional $100 billion or so in annual oil revenues would still have paid for a lot of mischief in the Middle East.

Would Saddam have competed with Iran to fund Hamas? Would he have made common cause with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to support anti-government insurgents in Colombia? Would Iraq have offered haven to al-Qaeda terrorists escaping Afghanistan? 

Why on earth would Saddam team up with Hugo Chavez against Colombia (and why would we care if he did)?  Just because everyone who Frum classifies as “undemocratic” must be best buddies?  And al-Qaeda “terrorists” escaping Afghanistan into Iraq have to get through Iran first, which can be used as an excuse to occupy that country too, or anywhere else on earth for that matter.  Notice the circular logic.  The US goes into Afghanistan because there are terrorists there.  The terrorists may escape into Iraq, so regime change is necessary there too.  Anyone resisting in Iraq is now a terrorist, who may flee to and get funding from Syria and Iran (remember that McCain was prompted to sing "bomb, bomb Iran" by a question about Iranians helping Iraqi insurgents).  Repeat until the American people wake up or the country goes bankrupt.  

Saddam would’ve probably funded Hamas though, and it’s not a coincidence that Frum only becomes cogent when writing about what he truly cares about.

A Saddam-ruled Iraq would not have been a quiet or comfortable place. And when the regime finally did end, it would have ended violently. When the U.S.-led coalition overthrew Saddam, violence erupted between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, leading to an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths. Does anybody imagine that things would have gone better if the regime had ended instead with a Saddam assassination or heart attack?

Yes, because if Saddam had a heart attack Iraq would still have an army, police and intelligence agencies keeping religious maniacs of all sides from killing each other.  As John Basil Utley writes “we destroyed [Iraq’s] civil structure—its police, civil service, most of its functions of government, even schoolteachers were fired en masse.”  Saddam may have been a mass murderer, but when the US invaded there wasn’t anything resembling the civil strife that we’ve seen since 2003.  The clearest measure of “success” is how Iraqis have voted with their feet.  Over 5 percent of the population, including 40 percent of the middle class, has fled Frum’s democracy, running to such “evil rogue states” like Iran and Syria.  Many more would leave if they were able to.  Neo-cons may tell us that 60 or 70 percent of the middle class may have ended up fleeing if the US had minded its own businesses, but there’s no rational basis for such calculations.  Had the US invaded Syria, Libya or Iran in 2003, Frum could today tell us that no matter how bad things look in 2010, they surly would’ve been much worse if Qaddafi or Al-Assad had had a heart attack.

Most ideological dictatorships don't end in an inferno.  Instead, the ruling class eventually realizes that whatever ideology propelled the first generation of the regime to power-socialism, Maoism, Baathism, pan-Arabism, whatever-was a failure and their people want to be wealthy, and the way to become wealthy is by being non-belligerent and opening up markets.  That's probably the path Iraq would've taken.  Such regimes aren't guaranteed to be democracies or friends of Israel, but these shouldn't be American concerns.