The Spectator

By Tom Switzer

‘There’s a tremendous amount on the line [in Iraq]. If this goes wrong, of course, [neoconservatives] will be, to some degree, discredited. Justifiably so. We put forward these ideas and they’re really being put to the test.’ So said diehard neocon Joshua Muravchik shortly after the Iraq invasion. As the tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom nears, I think a lot about my former American Enterprise Institute colleague’s musings.

I have spent a week in Washington where the esteemed journalist James Fallows and I try to work out how to attract several big shots to visit Australia in November for a conference at Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre (my day job). The subject: how various media outlets can adapt to the relentless 24-7 news and internet cycle and re-invent themselves after the business model devastation of the past decade. I also spend a lot of time here talking about the other devastation of the past ten years. Australians have all but forgotten the Iraq war. But I won’t, and I find that a few US supporters of the ‘shock and awe’ campaign can’t either. It’s the spectre haunting Washington.

One night, I find myself hobnobbing with Paul Wolfowitz (Bush’s deputy defence secretary) and Doug Feith (undersecretary of defence) who are widely known as the intellectual architects of the war. Irving Kristol once said that ‘a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality’. Have these guys been mugged by reality (again)? Will they now admit that their positions have been overwhelmed by countervailing data? Not quite: they appear more focused on Assad and Ahmadinejad. When I inform Wolfowitz and Feith that John Howard is scheduled to deliver a keynote address to the Lowy Institute on 9 April (Liberation Day!) defending what most Australians believed was the biggest mistake of his tenure, their eyes light up. For these battle-scarred warriors, it’s a relief to know that at least one foreigner other than Tony Blair is still singing their old song.

In March 2003, I was working from inside the trenches of what Robert Manne called ‘the aggressively pro-war editorial team at the Australian’. But it’s worth recalling that our editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, the most creative and contrarian newspaperman with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, privately believed that Iraq was an unnecessary distraction from the broader fight against Islamist terrorism. To prove it, we edited an opinion page that, far from being an echo chamber for our hawkish editorials, was a ping-pong table for both sides of the debate.

What distinguished me from my other Oz editorial colleagues was that I had opposed the war from the outset. I did so not on the reflexive the-US-is-always-wrong grounds that motivated many lefties, but on an appeal to the classic conservative virtues of prudence, scepticism concerning sweeping ambition and the dangers of hubris. It was odd to take issue with normally like-minded friends (Tony Abbott, Greg Sheridan, Janet Albrechtsen) and even weirder to agree with the Old Left (Phillip Adams, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky). No wonder I started going grey ten years ago!

Heavily influenced by the legendary realist intellectual Professor John Mearsheimer as well as former Republican presidential national security advisor General Brent Scowcroft, I had recognised that the war was just plain dumb. The threat that Saddam Hussein posed could have been contained, as indeed it had been since the 1991 Gulf War (sanctions, no-fly zone, naval blockade). And although Iraq had been ruled by a brutal tyrant, the task of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure. Besides, as Owen Harries was fond of asking, what did Saddam do to Australia other than buy our wheat?

I can draw no great comfort from seemingly being right about this bloody shambles. But even I have to admit I did not quite see how much of a catastrophic failure Iraq would become: the deaths of some 200,000 Iraqis and some 5,000 ‘coalition of the willing’ troops; more than a trillion US dollars; badly tarnished US credibility and prestige around the globe; a Shia authoritarian government in conflict with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities; greater Iranian influence in Baghdad; Iraqi women more repressed than ever; militia killings and car bombings on a weekly basis; the streets of many towns less safe than before the invasion; two million Iraqis driven to exile — and, of course, those missing weapons which supposedly posed an imminent threat to the world. Sure, Bush’s ‘surge’ in 2007 bought some time to allow ‘democratic’ elections to take place, but never enough time, as erstwhile hawk Andrew Sullivan now concedes, to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity.

Albert Wohlstetter, the late nuclear strategist and Wolfowitz’s mentor, once said that ‘a truly bad idea never really dies’. Today, many of the same people who championed an egregious strategic blunder a decade ago support a pre-emptive strike on Iran. And many neocons and liberal hawks alike are egging on a cash-strapped Uncle Sam to meddle in Syria’s civil war. But surely the lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy cannot be rolled out like Astroturf, and imposing it on artificial states and medieval societies courts danger. Nor is preventive war the right way to handle tyrants with nukes. Unlike terrorists who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive. If the Mullahs used WMDs against US interests, they would guarantee massive retaliation. Too bad Howard, Blair and the neocons have not learned the lessons of their misbegotten venture.

This article was originally published at The Spectator