Iraq, for better and worse

GEORGE PACKER is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author, most recently, of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," published this week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

WAS THE Iraq war worth it?

Ever since its beginnings, long ago, as a gleam in the eye of Bush administration officials and neoconservative thinkers, the war has forced on all of us F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous test of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Before the invasion, there was the possibility of a world without Saddam Hussein and of an Iraq that no longer threatened endless violence in its volatile region -- which was attractive. There was also the certainty of death and destruction in a new war, and the many reasons to doubt that this administration was up to the job -- which was frightening.

One had to balance fear against hope, the Middle Eastern status quo against unknown consequences, Donald Rumsfeld against the legacy of the Halabja poison gas attack, the United Nations against democratic idealism. In the winter of 2003, what you thought about the war mattered less to me than how you thought about it. The ability to function meant honest engagement with the full range of opposing ideas; it meant facing rather than avoiding the other position’s best arguments. In those tense months, the mark of second-rate minds was absolute certainty one way or the other.


I came down on the pro-war side, by a whisker. I understood the risks and costs; I didn’t understand how large they would be -- how much larger than necessary because of the arrogance and incompetence of U.S. leaders.

I thought then, and think now, that the war’s merits could not be known in advance. The argument that the war was “illegal,” and therefore damned at birth, wasn’t persuasive; the intervention in Kosovo was justified without the blessing of the United Nations. Iraq was a war of choice, in the sense that we went off to fight even though we had not been physically attacked, which raised the threshold for the American public’s and the world’s support. But this didn’t make the war immoral by definition; other than World War II, every American war has arguably been a war of choice. In my view, the decision to overthrow Hussein would have to be judged by its consequences.

Two-and-a-half heartbreaking years later, where does the balance of the evidence lie? It’s still possible that the fondest hopes of the war’s architects will be realized in a generation or two -- that regime change in Iraq will advance democracy and reduce extremism across the Middle East.

But policymakers are accountable within the parameters of their own watch. For now, and into the foreseeable future, U.S. interests have been badly damaged by the fighting in Iraq. The war has been a disaster for our military, which has suffered grievous death and injury, lost a measure of its honor at Abu Ghraib and been overextended to the point where withdrawal might become necessary simply for lack of available troops.

The direct costs to the national treasure are easy to measure; the fraying of alliances, the loss of U.S. power and prestige, the draining of attention and resources from other crises, especially the struggle against the twin dangers of worldwide jihad and nuclear proliferation, are harder to quantify but no less real. The overthrow of the Baathist regime has produced anarchy, a violent insurgency that will continue for years and, more recently, the specter of large-scale civil war. Meanwhile, the weapons that were the administration’s casus belli turn out to have been phantoms.

A foreign policy “realist,” who weighs every decision against a narrowly defined “vital national interest,” can only see catastrophe in Iraq. Lately, most Americans -- liberals and conservatives alike -- have become realists.

And the Iraqis? Since the fall of the former regime, my reporting in Iraq has produced a more complex picture than the partisans and pundits on both sides in this country seem comfortable with. Iraqis have generally shown themselves worthier than Americans of Fitzgerald’s praise. Many of them can despise the occupation, curse their continued bad luck and show no desire to turn history back to March 2003.

This quality of patience and larger understanding, born of many years of suffering, is one of the very few sources of hope that I can find in Iraq today. The ordinary people I know there who long for a decent life, without suicide bombs, electrical outages or the secret police, make it difficult for me to write off Iraq as an irredeemable disaster.

And, for better or worse, our fate is now tied to theirs. There can be no phased withdrawal from the future of Iraq. The drama being played out in Baghdad and elsewhere -- the effort to create representative government and hold the country together against forces of violence and fragmentation -- will have lasting consequences for Americans, far greater than Vietnam ever did.

Was it worth it, then? If it couldn’t be done right, should it have been done at all? For Americans today, the answer has to be no. For Iraqis, and for the future of this crucial region, with which our own future is inextricably linked, it’s difficult to know definitively.

The Middle East is poised between democratic stirrings, rising Islamist extremism and the nightmare of a regional war centered in Iraq. But the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the appropriate response to the events of the last 2 1/2 years is neither self-justification nor self-reproach but simple grief for the hopes and sacrifices of Iraqis and Americans alike. The war is not an argument to be won or lost; it’s a tragedy.