What Remains

by Leon Wieseltier | June 28, 2004

IF I HAD known that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported this war. I am not embarrassed by my assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed the sort of arsenal that made him a clear and present danger: The alarming intelligence estimates were shared by many Western governments, so that the debate in the months preceding the war concerned the methods for disarming Iraq, not the reasons for disarming it. And to my certainty of Saddam's capability I added my certainty of his depravity. I required no intelligence estimates to demonstrate that Saddam stood out darkly in the discussion of weapons of mass destruction, because he had employed them, against soldiers and against civilians, and thereby demonstrated his immunity to the cold and saving rationality on which the art of deterrence has always been based. A man who could use these obscene materials was also a man who could proliferate them. And the political utility of the fear that such an arsenal could inspire in its region and elsewhere added to my conviction that Saddam Hussein constituted a severe menace. Owing to the scale of the catastrophe that such weapons may cause, moreover, they lead strategic calculations about proliferation to moral calculations about genocide. I saw no significant distinction between Halabja and Srebrenica: They were both human emergencies of the kind that justify, or so I believe, the use of American power against them. (The more precise analogy, of course, is between Halabja and Kigali, since in both instances America did nothing.) In the case of Saddam Hussein, then, the benefit of the doubt did not seem like an exercise in critical thinking. And so I was persuaded that the United States was facing a significant strategic threat and a significant humanitarian threat. Prudence and conscience brought me to the same conclusion.

But I was deceived. Strategic thinking must have an empirical foundation. You do not act against a threat for which there is little or no evidence. Yet that is precisely what the United States did. Saddam Hussein had no nuclear capability, and almost no nuclear program. If there is an adequate explanation for the disposition of his vast and documented hoard of chemical and biological weapons, I have not heard it; but the magnitude of the mystery surrounding his arsenal must not obscure the magnitude of the blunder that was committed in our description of it. Will some canisters or some vials still turn up in the desert? Perhaps, but I would not send a thousand American soldiers to their deaths for a debater's point. The arsenal that we said was there is not there. Whatever the merits of preemption, there was nothing to preempt. It really is as plain as that. An absence of regrets and recriminations on the part of a supporter of this war now amounts to an absence of intellectual honesty. The administration is reaping an alienation that it sowed. (It is very hard to forgive George W. Bush for the good fortune of Michael Moore.) Whether or not the president lied, he was not speaking the truth. He justified this war to the American people in a manner that will make it difficult for a long time to come to justify almost any war to the American people. In a time of genuine crisis, in a world riddled with savage enmity toward America and Americans, he was sloppy with our trust.

BUT THIS WAR had other grounds as well. It was supposed to strike a decisive blow against terrorism. I do not doubt the seriousness of the Bush administration's intention to protect the United States, but I never understood this argument. It always seemed to me that the benefits to American security that would result from preventing a collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (and I am under no illusion that the Baathism of the one or the Wahhabism of the other would stand in the way of their mutual anti-American convenience) would be substantially less than the costs to American security that would result from the introduction of an American army into the heart of the Arab world. We cannot fight Islamic radicalism, I mean militarily, without creating Islamic radicalism. The fight against Islamic radicalism must be political and cultural, which is why the fight against Islamic radicalism must not be conflated with the fight against Islamic terrorism. The latter must be more concrete and more immediate and more ruthless. But the victory over Al Qaeda will not be accomplished in Iraq. What does the formation of a government in Iraq have to do with the seven individuals whom the FBI is hunting in America? Indeed, the war in Iraq seems to have globalized Al Qaeda, and glamorized it in the eyes of many Muslims. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, we are living with spikes and upticks. This is not surprising. Our enemies are incensed and inspired. These are the actions and the reactions of war. Such a price would have been worth paying for the elimination of one of the most lethal arsenals in the world in the hands of one of the most heartless tyrants in the world. But mourir pour le Niger? This leaves the other justification for the war, the ennobling one. I say this without irony, and I refer to the democratization of Iraq. I can imagine no grander historical experiment in our time than the effort to bring a liberal order to an Arab society. Like the objective of a disarmed Iraq, the objective of a democratic Iraq has both strategic and moral dimensions. The autocratic regimes and inert societies of the Arab world, the shocking immobilism of Arab existence in the middle of history's wildest acceleration, are responsible for the creation of monsters like Mohamed Atta, who choose death prospects because they lack life prospects. Political development in the Arab world is therefore a long-term requirement of Western security. Moreover, the war in Iraq represents a fine repudiation of the "civilizational" analysis of the world, the polite and polysyllabic rehabilitation of global prejudice, of which conservatives have been so enamored recently. And that cruel analysis, which denies the universalist scope of the democratic ideal, is weirdly shared also by jihadists and progressives, who concur that the liberalization of Iraq is nothing more than an imperialist adventure. Still, some murmurings are in order. It is important to remember that freedom is not the same thing as democracy. When people are liberated, they become free to be what they already are. They almost never are already a democracy. Democracy is an elaborate structure of principles and institutions. It is built, not found. The liberation of Iraq is only a condition for the democratization of Iraq. Finally the fate of Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis. If Iraq becomes a theocracy, or succumbs to a strongman, or collapses as a state, all this, too, will be the work of a free Iraq. For this reason, it is important to remember also that democratization is essentially a policy of destabilization. It demands the overthrow of one political culture so that another political culture may take its place. (That is why the outrages at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere are not only repugnant but also disastrous: "Hearts and minds" are precisely the field upon which democratizers make their stand. In this regard, nothing could be more damaging to the future of Iraq than Iraqi anti-Americanism.) It is absolutely astonishing that the planners of this war expected only happiness in its wake. Their postwar planning seems to have consisted in a kind of reverse Augustinianism: goodness is the absence of evil, Saddam is evil, Saddam's absence is good. They failed to intuit all the other evils that would emerge in the absence of this evil. They did not recognize the multiplicity of Iraq's demons; which is to say, they did not recognize Iraq. Here, too, they operated unempirically, in a universe of definitions and congratulations.

ALL THIS IS not to suggest that I have despaired of an admirable ending, of a better Iraq. There are many, many Iraqis who wish to live in an open and decent society. There are many Shia who do not wish to be ruled by sharia. The tribal and confessional realities of Iraq are not its whole story. And if a liberal order is created in Iraq, a regional revolution will have been accomplished. But it will not be brought into being swiftly or smoothly. The war for Iraqi freedom will be followed by the war for Iraqi identity. Every society has the right, the duty, to determine what kind of society it will be. This determination is sometimes made violently. (The Civil War in America was the delayed war of the American Constitution.) Insofar as the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein suppressed the struggle among the claimants for the character of Iraq, its peace was a false peace, a postponement of the country's hour of truth. The American war in Iraq has brought Iraq to its hour. Yet the war for Iraqi identity is not an American war, even if America has important interests in its outcome. We must do what we can to assist the democratic forces, not least with the problem of public order. (Iraqi power plus electrification, one is tempted to say.) But if we are remaining in Iraq, it is not because we are confident of a Jeffersonian tomorrow. We cannot withdraw from Iraq because we would leave behind the greatest gift to theocratic terror since Afghanistan, and because we would betray the democrats and the pluralists and the Kurds.

IS THIS CONTINUED support for the war? Then I continue to support the war. But I have come to despise some of the people who are directing it. History, and we have been punished with a good deal of it on their watch, has not enlarged them. They are rigid and sectarian and righteous. Mentally, they do not live in the wide world. They do not see that the leadership of the most powerful country on earth demands a certain cosmopolitanism of mind. Main Street is all they wish to know. They think that French is funny. The more I observe Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, the more I discover the deep and unwitting similarities between unilateralism and isolationism. Like the isolationist, the unilateralist believes that the United States is alone in the world, and that there is honor in its aloneness. Like the isolationist, the unilateralist regards international alliances expediently, cynically. (When he finds himself frantically relying upon foreign countries and international institutions to assist him in difficult circumstances, like George W. Bush in postwar Iraq, he thinks no second thoughts about the blandishments of "foreign entanglements." He merely exploits the entanglements.) Like the isolationist, the unilateralist thinks that we can provide for ourselves everything that we need, everything that is precious. It is no wonder that this administration has presided over a new flourishing of anti-Americanism. It accepts anti-Americanism as a compliment. It holds that all anti-Americanism is like all other anti-Americanism, and is in no way to be imputed to American behavior. In this way, the Bush administration has transformed anti-Americanism into one of the most urgent, and least addressed, problems facing American foreign policy. In a time when the safety of the United States depends more and more upon the cooperation of other states and other societies--the struggle against terrorism is a struggle against stateless villains organized in far-flung networks--the foreign policy of the United States surrendered to Gary Cooperism. Our leaders are all such legends in their own eyes. But after Will Kane shot Frank Miller dead, you will recall, he left town. The unilateralist became an isolationalist. The transition was easy. He would rely forevermore upon his sanctimony and his hauteur. The rule of Saddam Hussein was uncommonly brutal. Its destruction represents a triumph of the idealistic strain in American foreign policy. Americans may be proud of having rid the world of such a horror. But the Bush administration's mistakes, many of them the consequences of its various theologies, have somewhat disgraced idealism, and this, too, is a disservice to America. The course of the war in Iraq may persuade many Americans to revert to America's inward-looking habits. And the Bush administration is singularly ill-suited to teach those Americans about the glories of internationalism. Though the president and the vice president are acting with force internationally, they are not exactly internationalists. They are not national greatness conservatives, they are national smallness conservatives. But who are the national greatness liberals?

This article originally ran in June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine.

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