Taking stock of Iraq

If the horrific bombings of Spanish commuter trains last week tell us anything, it’s that we have no idea what the continuing fallout from the war in Iraq will be.

A year ago this week, the United States took the unprecedented step of pre-emptively invading Iraq, a non-belligerent nation. Looking back, we can say that in some ways it has been a successful mission, but in others, as the Madrid bombings suggest, it has had disastrous consequences.

On the plus side, Saddam Hussein, an especially gruesome tyrant, is gone. The liberation of 25 million Iraqis from this monster should not be undervalued.

And it may well turn out, as optimists and the Bush administration hope, that Iraq will emerge finally as a bastion of democracy and stability in the Middle East. That will be a good thing too, though at this point it’s hardly a sure thing. Iraq, a nation in concept only, could just as well descend into bloody civil war or become a fundamentalist theocracy.

In the meantime, America’s credibility has suffered immensely, especially overseas, as it has become clear that the principal rationale given for the invasion, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in violation of a United Nations resolution, was totally wrong and perhaps a self-serving lie.

At this time a year ago, U.N. inspectors on the ground in Iraq had been unable to find any weapons, and several members of the U.N. Security Council, notably France, Germany and Russia, opposed invasion. The United States went ahead anyway.

With the failure after the invasion to find weapons of mass destruction, the war increasingly is being seen as a cynical exercise in global hegemony on the part of the world’s only superpower.

Saddam Hussein, it’s now clear, was no threat to anyone other than his own people. And it’s also clear that another rationale for the invasion, that Saddam was somehow tied to al Qaeda, was simply not true.

The Bush administration has tried to sell the war as a legitimate response to Islamic terrorism, particularly the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And in the long run it may turn out, if Iraq does stabilize, that having an open, democratic country in the heart of the Middle East will serve to bring the region, and its feudal sheikdoms, into the modern age and out of poverty. That is far from a given, however, as the daily shootings and bombings there remind us.

In the short term, the war has turned Muslim people throughout the Middle East against the U.S. and sparked many restless, unemployed and impoverished youth to embrace Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Iraq and al-Qaeda weren’t linked before, but now they are.

The war has also been a huge and—at $160 billion and counting—hugely expensive distraction from the global anti-terrorism effort. It’s stretched U.S. military forces thin and strained relations with such longtime allies as France and Germany. Indeed, it has alienated many American allies, reducing to some extent the levels of cooperation needed to uproot a worldwide network of terrorist cells.

And then, lest we forget, people have died. Nearly 600 U.S. soldiers have been killed, as have thousands of Iraqis, including many innocent civilians. And the dying continues.

It’s too soon to draw lessons from this war. Perhaps the best we can do now, as we consider whether to re-elect George W. Bush as president in November, is remember what the original questions were and continue to ask them: Can any nation, in this complex and interconnected world, operate single-handedly on such a dramatic scale? Which works better to resolve multinational problems, cooperation or self-interested individualism? Is violence really the best answer to violence, or does it simply beget more violence? How should the U.S. defend itself from terrorism?