The year that began with global controversy over war in Iraq has ended with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the capitulation of Moammar Gadhafi on weapons of mass destruction. While a final judgment on the war won't be possible for years, a fair year-end assessment shows that both the U.S. and the world are better and safer because of it.
"The law of unintended consequences hasn't been repealed," we wrote before the coalition invasion, and there have been many surprises in Iraq, both pleasant and not. Nonetheless, Howard Dean has famously framed the Iraq question in precisely the manner we have above, and the 2004 Presidential election will hang in part on the answer. So let's sort through the consequences so far, as well as the challenges to come.
For the vast majority of Iraqis, their lives and prospects are infinitely better. A dictator of 30 years has been toppled, in remarkably rapid fashion, and now captured to stand trial. His homicidal sons are no longer able to feed their enemies (literally) to lions. While Baath Party remnants can still terrorize both Iraqis and coalition soldiers, they have no prospect of returning to power. Schools, commerce, religion -- a normal civic life -- are reviving in that once vital country.
The fragmentation of Iraq that was widely predicted has also failed to occur. The Kurds in the north are pressing for more autonomy, but they also understand that they owe their freedom to U.S. soldiers. The majority Shiites are also enjoying their first liberty in decades and have proven to be Iraqi patriots, not agents of Iran. There are delicate negotiations ahead with Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani over elections for a new Iraqi government, but he has also largely cooperated with the coalition.
The insurgency in the Sunni Triangle will continue to be a danger, and the solution there is both military and political. The Baathist and jihadi diehards will have to be killed, while faster progress toward a new Iraqi government may persuade other Sunnis that they'd better participate if they want a role in the new Iraq. While Sunni (and other minority) rights will have to be protected, the Shiite majority will inevitably dominate a free Iraqi government.
The March redeployment of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to Sunni areas west of Baghdad should help on both counts. Under Lieutenant General James Conway and Major General James Mattis, the Marines smoothly managed Karbala and Najaf in the aftermath of the invasion. Their strategy -- reflected in their motto "no better friend, no worse enemy" -- punishes troublemakers without mercy but treats those who cooperate with restraint and dignity.
Beyond American troops, more and more Iraqis are also now joining the fight for their own country. The Bush Administration's biggest mistake of the war was not trusting the Iraqis early enough with this task, but the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is now large enough to make a difference. These Iraqis are one reason U.S. forces now have better intelligence against the insurgents.
What about the Middle East, and beyond? The instability that was also widely feared has not appeared, and if anything the opposite is true. No one has been more impressed by the U.S. invasion than the Saudis, who are finally cooperating seriously against al Qaeda. Colonel Gadhafi got the message that playing with WMD is a bad career choice, while Iran is at least meeting with the U.N. again in order to dodge sanctions, or worse, and to preserve its nuclear program. The latter remains a Bush nettle for 2004.
Much as Bernard Lewis predicted, in short, respect for America has only increased with this demonstration of strength and purpose. The invasion and its aftermath have gone far toward purging the ghosts of Beirut and Mogadishu, which Osama bin Laden spun into legends of American weakness. As destructive as they are, the truck bombs in Iraq are only strategically notable because this time they are not driving the U.S. home. Much still depends on the kind of Iraqi government that emerges in 2004 and beyond, but the mere possibility that a democratic Arab and Islamic state might exist is already reshaping the region.
Another global benefit of the war is the end of illusions about the United Nations and a certain kind of "multilateralism." The U.N. couldn't enforce its own resolutions before the war, and afterward it fled Iraq the first time it was targeted by terrorists. The latter was a special insult to the brave U.N. officials who died trying to rebuild Iraq. The lesson of Iraq, as before in Kosovo, is that only the U.S. has the political will and military means to defeat global threats. American Presidents in the future will likewise have to build coalitions on an ad hoc basis, often working around a U.N. Security Council obstructed by France.
The most important Iraq result, however, has been the demonstration of U.S. public support. Even amid the worst of the casualty reports in November, some 60% of Americans said the war was worth fighting. This support is all the more remarkable because it has held despite the loud and relentless opposition of most of the country's liberal elite.
As we worried before the war, most American journalists and academics have broadcast premature defeat several times along the way: at the lack of a U.N. blessing, during the first week of the war, at the failure to find stockpiles of WMD, in distortions about intelligence before the war, and most recently at the strength of the insurgency before the capture of Saddam. In fairness, these voices do represent a large U.S. minority that has found a champion in Mr. Dean's antiwar candidacy.
Yet most Americans have kept their faith in U.S. purposes despite the worst casualty figures since September 11. The public seems to understand implicitly that Iraq is integral to the war on terror, indeed that failure in Iraq will only embolden al Qaeda and the likes of North Korea's Kim Jong Il.
This determination is nowhere more evident than among the men and women actually fighting in Iraq. Many -- reserves in particular -- have had to endure long tours that they didn't expect and under the harshest of climates and physical danger. Many have suffered. Their consolation, and that of their families, is that their sacrifice is every bit as important to American freedom and security as those made in World War II, Korea and, yes, Vietnam.