Was the war really worth it? Don't listen to Bush - just ask the Iraqis

By John Rentoul

The Independent

26 June 2005

Something strange has happened to the war. It has gone quiet. After the noise of the Prime Minister repeatedly being called a liar in the election campaign, and the anti-climax of the publication of the Attorney General's legal advice a week before polling day, all is quiet on the anti-war front. It should not be. Surely, now that the wisdom of occupying Iraq is being seriously questioned in America, including in the American military, this is the wrong time for the British to lose interest.

As someone who thought that Tony Blair took the right decision in 2003, it might be expected that I would welcome the fact that the media caravan has "moved on", to use the phrase the Prime Minister could not help using on the morning after his re-election. Not exactly. I was fed up with the narrowness of the anti-war obsessions, from "Blair secretly committed Britain to war before parliament voted" to "Lord Goldsmith secretly advised it would be unlawful", neither of which was true.

But what is happening in America now is a more worthwhile debate, one about whether the continuing success of the insurgency in Iraq means that the US-British policy was a mistake. That seems to be a question of the utmost importance, in which we British should be engaged.

Opinion polls in America show rising levels of concern about the situation in Iraq and falling support for President Bush - with an approval rating at 42 per cent he is in danger of becoming a lame duck surprisingly early in his second term. Polls show an increasing worry about the admittedly imperfect analogy with Vietnam, and growing support for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. Early American withdrawal would of course be a disaster, and Bush last week rightly rejected the idea of setting a date for pulling out, which the insurgents could claim as a victory.

Nevertheless, the failure of American policy is now the subject of serious debate. Only an American newspaper could publish an article, as The Washington Post did last weekend, headlined, "Whether This War Was Worth It". Its author, Robert Kagan, concluded that it still was, largely on the grounds that the consequences of doing nothing were worse. This was not as defensively unpersuasive as Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who was recently asked if the security situation in Iraq had improved. "Statistically, no," he said, but added: "A lot of bad things that could have happened have not happened."

Kagan is not wholly convincing either. We know now, not only that Saddam Hussein almost certainly had no weapons of mass destruction, but that his regime was a pathetic, empty shell that would have found it difficult to acquire them even if the sanctions regime had been further eroded. It is no longer possible to defend the invasion on the basis that, if we knew then what we know now about the threat posed by Saddam, we would still have gone ahead. But that cannot be the real test. Bush and Blair took the right decision in 2003 on the available information. The intelligence was imperfect and they were selective in their use of it. But they had reasonable grounds for believing that Saddam was a threat and wanted to persuade others who were wary of military action.

The question now is whether the policy was a mistake. The absence of WMD does not automatically make it so. The real question, given that wars always have unpredicted consequences, is whether they made the right broad judgement that the world would be safer and Iraq better off if Saddam were removed.

It is too early to be sure but so far the Iraq war seems to fail one test and merely scrape a pass on the other. It seems implausible to suggest that the threat from jihadist terrorism has been lessened when the whole of Iraq has been turned into an ideological and military training ground for the cultists of a perverted form of Islam. The conduct of the war against al-Qa'ida, from Bagram to Abu Ghraib via Guantanamo, could hardly have been better designed to persuade potential recruits that America was an enemy worth taking up arms against.

"The US is notably unskilful in our communications and our public diplomacy," said Rumsfeld in a BBC interview. In case anyone should doubt him, he went on: "The people in Gitmo ... 99 per cent have the best food probably, the best medical treatment, they've ever received in their lives."

The only hope - and it is a great and important hope - is that Iraq will act as a catalyst for democracy in the region. Condoleezza Rice showed Rummy how to do it last week with her speech in Egypt, in which she said bluntly that in the past America "pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, and we achieved neither". That is a welcome and heroic shift in US policy, and one to which Bush is clearly committed: unlike Colin Powell, Rice is undoubtedly Her Master's Voice.

That has the potential to outweigh the short-term damage done by the inept way in which the post-war struggle in Iraq has been fought. The prospects for democracy are linked to the second test, which is whether Iraq is better off. That is what is making America jittery. US soldiers are dying in numbers that are small by the standards of Vietnam, but infinitely draining of Bush's credibility. General Abizaid, the US regional commander, last week contradicted his political bosses by saying "more foreign fighters are coming into Iraq than there were six months ago".

In many ways, the relative stability of Saddam's police state might seem preferable to the murderous insecurity of the country now, but that is not how most Iraqis see it. Opinion polls in Iraq are not perfect, but, like democracy, they are the worst way of knowing what Iraqis think - apart from any other way. And that ought to remain the bottom line. Despite the Bush administration's failure to plan for the responsibilities of running an entire country, the Iraqis say that it was worth it to get rid of Saddam. Despite Vice-President Dick Cheney saying that January's elections would be "the end of the insurgency", or that it is now "in its last throes", the Iraqis say that it is worth it. Despite everything Rumsfeld has said, done and failed to do to make it difficult to support the US, the Iraqi people remain hopeful and we remain under an obligation to stand by them.

The answer to Kagan's question, "Whether This War Was Worth It", is - provisionally - answered best by the Iraqis themselves. By turning out in such numbers in the elections in January their answer was: yes, just.