Iraq, five years later – still too soon to judge
It'll take decades to set the record straight. What we need now is the fortitude to win.
Today, when only 38 percent of Americans believe that invading Iraq five years ago was the right course of action, it is easy to forget that 72 percent of Americans favored war in March 2003.Skip to next paragraph
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The past five years have, of course, failed to live up to many American expectations. Much intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) turned out to be wrong. A postinvasion Iraq that was projected to finance its own reconstruction is now absorbing 12 billion US taxpayer dollars per month. An Iraqi society that was supposed to become a model of liberal democracy is instead torn by insurgent violence and dependent upon a huge US military presence. Insurgents have killed 4,000 Americans and far more Iraqis.
Today, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, it's tempting to render all kinds of judgment on critical questions: Is America safer today because of the war? Are we winning? Was the decision to go to war flawed or purposely misleading? What went wrong with the occupation? What effect has the war had on America's allies and enemies? When will the war end? These are natural questions to ask. But answering them would be premature.
That's because conclusively evaluating the war requires much information that is not presently available. Published sources offer conflicting accounts of the Bush administration's prewar deliberations, leaving unclear what exactly top administration officials knew and believed about Iraqi WMD and Iraq's potential for democratization. Thus, we must await the release of classified government documents, several decades from now, to judge the decision on the basis of what was known at the time, which is one way that future historians will assess it.
Assessing the decision with the wisdom of hindsight, as historians will also do, likewise requires a decades-long period of waiting for critical facts to emerge. Reports that Saddam Hussein sent WMD to Syria before his downfall have yet to be verified or disproved. Only time will reveal whether Iraq has served as a magnet for terrorists who otherwise would have gone to the United States to perpetrate the next 9/11.
If Americans were asked on Sept. 12, 2001, what sacrifices they would make to prevent another massive terrorist attack, a large fraction no doubt would have been willing to accept the costs that have been incurred in Iraq. After all, 9/11 killed 3,000 people and caused economic damage that, according to some estimates, exceeded the costs of the Iraq war to date.