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A War’s Significance and Its Outcome Aren’t the Same Thing

James Joyner rejects Wolfowitz’s “too soon to tell” argument on the Iraq war:

Remarkably, Wolfowitz not only misapprehends the war that he played a vital role in initiating, planning, and overseeing but he has the unmitigated gall to blame people who managed to win their war in Iraq and keep it from mission creeping into a fiasco of epic proportions. While proclaiming that, “the US should not be sorry about the ‘failure’ to install a new dictator in Iraq to restore the old false stability” he urges that, “What did require a US apology—which the Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, offered in the Fall of 2011—was the failure to assist the Shia uprising in 1991, in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait.”

If there’s one thing Iraq war dead-enders don’t lack, it’s a copious supply of gall. A person would have to have a lot to be one of the architects of a debacle as great as the Iraq war and still think that his opinions about the debacle should be taken seriously. So it’s not surprising that Wolfowitz would choose to complain about the decision not to plunge the U.S. into new war after Desert Storm. The great failure of the elder Bush’s administration in this instance was the decision to issue public appeals to Iraqis to rise up against their government when the president and his advisers must have known that they had no intention of lending them any support. It was unwise for the U.S. to urge on an uprising when it was always going to remain on the “sidelines,” and of course it was fatal for a great many Iraqis that mistakenly expected support that was never forthcoming. Since 1991, it has been democratists and hard-liners that have been most vocal in urging that the U.S. repeat that mistake whenever they demand that a president create false expectations of U.S. backing for a protest movement or rebellion through the use of empty rhetoric.

Wolfowitz claims that it “may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war,” but that’s a very silly thing to say. It may be a long time before we can assess the full historical significance of the Iraq war. That’s true of any major event that happens in one’s own lifetime, to say nothing of a war. Andrew Bacevich addressed that question here, and suggested that the Iraq war might prove to be no more significant over the long term than the War of 1812 was for the later history of the United States. The Iraq war was unnecessary, appallingly destructive, and extremely stupid, but perhaps the most damning thing that will be said about it one day in the future is that it ultimately didn’t matter very much. The outcome of the Iraq war is much more straightforward: it was a costly, wasteful failure. It advanced no concrete American interests, and instead did real harm to U.S. security. Then again, that was clear to some of us over eight years ago.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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