That Iraq could possibly grow into a freer, more pluralistic and even prosperous Mideast democracy is a wonderful prospect. But it is not the reason the United States invaded Iraq, and if we don’t keep that in mind every time someone such as Goldberg decides to see silver linings in the policy clouds we will only make similar mistakes over, and over and over again. ~Kevin Sullivan

This is right, but what I would insist that we question the claims of silver linings as well. When Goldberg talks about how “noble” it was to put Iraq “on a path to democracy and decency,” he is making a more modest version of Wehner’s triumphalist claim that invading Iraq ranks high among the noblest acts in American history. Beneath all of it, there is still the conceit that launching an unnecessary war of aggression is right and noble. This is why I find this misguided and premature victory talk to be very foolish. Not only is this an attempt to see a silver lining in a very dark cloud, but it is also a bid to vindicate the entire misbegotten war. There will be no chance of avoiding the same mistakes in the future if the pro-war triumphalist argument about Iraq prevails. For these people, the mistake was not that our government invaded Iraq. At most, these people believe that the mistake was in how the government invaded or what it did afterwards.

Something else that we need to watch carefully is whether Iraqi political developments have anything to do with a “path to decency.” The standard by which war supporters want to judge progress in Iraq is a very, very low one. If Iraq has a reasonably peaceful election day, they are ready to claim complete success. Consider what was required to make the election yesterday as uneventful as it was:

By some estimates more than 1m Iraqis now wear a uniform. The government spends almost a fifth of its budget on wages for security people, and benefits from American help. Improvements in training and equipment have led to the fortification of much of the country. Baghdad alone has an estimated 1,500 checkpoints as well as hundreds of miles of cement blast-walls. The city is more militarised than it was under Saddam Hussein.

One can say that all of this is necessary and unavoidable, and that may be right, but one of the last things fledgling democracies in countries with a history of authoritarianism need is a massively oversized military and security apparatus. It is often the case in developing countries that the military can serve as an institution that unites and integrates the nation. This will tend to make it the one institution most of the population trusts and respects. However, with greater prestige and respect comes a willingness to intervene in politics when the elected civilians prove themselves to be incapable of governing effectively and/or relatively honestly. When experiments in liberalism, democratization and privatization go awry or are associated with extremely negative economic conditions, public confidence in these things disappears. If democratization is followed by dysfunction, corruption, misrule and lack of basic services, military or authoritarian government becomes very attractive. Given the extent of the sectarian politicization of Iraq’s military and police that already exists, and considering the harsh and arbitrary practices of security forces right now, the differences between an authoritarian and a democratic Iraq are not nearly as great as they are supposed to be.

Post-WWI American disillusionment with the war they had just fought was the result of many factors, but a very important factor was the recognition that the war to “make the world safe for democracy” was for nothing. Far from securing democracy anywhere, the war accustomed free nations to wartime authoritarian measures and unleashed the most terrible, destructive political forces in human history. The world has only in the last two or three decades begun to recover from the consequences of the catastrophic decisions that led to WWI, U.S. involvement and the post-war settlement that followed. That should always be a reminder to us that governments are capable of tremendous destruction in a short period of time with grave consequences for years and decades to follow, and so we should be extremely sparing in the government’s use of force and coercion. We should therefore be extremely wary of arguments for starting wars and also strained ideological arguments claiming success despite few gains and enormous costs.

If the war has provided no strategic gains for the United States, and it has not, the quality of Iraq’s democracy becomes the last thing war supporters can rely on to find some small redeeming feature for an otherwise terrible, unjustifiable policy. Should Iraq’s democratic experience prove to be brief or marred by corruption and violence, that last redeeming feature will vanish. There is not much right now that is very encouraging that this will not happen.