Let’s debate Iraq, not rewrite history

David Harsanyi

Believe it or not, you can simultaneously believe a number of things about the Iraq war and its aftermath.

You can believe Saddam Hussein wasn’t merely a “bad guy,” but that he harbored terrorists and offered them safe haven and material support. You can believe that the Bush administration genuinely believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and also that the war turned out to be a massive strategic failure. You can believe that the administration believed the Iraqi people would embrace democratic institutions once the Baathist regime was overthrown, and also that the project failed, leaving us with a bloody mess.

Not one of these things undermines the other.

You should not, however, believe that pundits and politicians are uniquely blessed with the capability of seeing alternative realities. Yet nearly every contemporary counter-history of the Iraq War tells us hundreds of millions of people would be living quietly under stable tyrannies that counteract each other and suppress terrorism.

To accept this as a truth you must also revise history. And Donald Trump’s take on Saddam and Iraq is a complete falsehood. Trump told a crowd in North Carolina: “He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. It was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard, OK? So sad.”

Well, for starters, Saddam didn’t kill terrorists, he killed those who threatened his power, which sometimes happened to include those we might deem terrorists. Whether it was the Sunni or Kurdish or Shiite theocrats, his goal was to consolidate power. No, he didn’t read them their rights or talk. He gassed civilians (“a little,” according to Trump) and tortured and raped the families of his enemies during his purges. At the time, there was an underlying moral argument for changing the lives of victims, and with it the trajectory of the Middle East. It failed.

It’s one thing to argue that allowing Saddam to stay may have helped counterbalance Iran or save Christians or avert a Syrian civil war. It’s something else to perpetuate the fiction that he did not export terrorism. If Iraq wasn’t Harvard for terrorists it was surely a safety school for top-notch extremists. Not only did Saddam aid and shelter the murderers of American citizens, but the United States designated Iraq a terror state for providing bases to a number of violent organizations.

Without any evidence to support his claim, Trump professes to have opposed this war before the invasion. Let’s concede that’s true. It’s worth pointing out that many anti-war progressives and paleoconservatives — and because Trump most resembles Buchananites, I’ll lump him in with them — do not possess any prescience on Middle East matters because they happen to be partially correct about the Iraq War’s aftermath. Even if weapons of mass destruction were found on Day One, and even if Iraq were a stable democracy today, they would still have opposed it. They are in blanket opposition to any military action at any time for any reason against any terror state or regime that threatens American interests.

Some segments of this opposition perfunctorily rationalize and justify the actions of enemy regimes, including the Iranian state and Palestinian terrorism. Plenty of people deserve credit for warning Americans about the downsides of the invasion, but Trump-style paleos are not among them.

I regret my support for the Iraq invasion, but the decision was far more complex, both morally and politically, than today’s revisionism implies. Let’s debate the war. Let’s not change history.

David Harsanyi, author of “The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy,” is a senior editor at The Federalist.