By: E&P Staff
While reporters for The Washington Post have provided some of the toughest and most critical accounts of the war in Iraq, the paper’s editorial page, which strongly supported the U.S. invasion four years ago, has remained hawkish. Today, however, an editorial on what has gone wrong there also goes out of its way to admit failure on the part of the Post.
Even so, in the end, it continues to argue against a U.S. withdrawal now.
Lengthy excerpts from the editorial appear below. The entire editorial appears at www.washingtonpost.com.
TOMORROW MARKS the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, as appropriate a moment as any to take stock. What matters most is finding the best policy now — doing whatever can be done to help Iraq and safeguard U.S. interests in a vital region. But looking back also is essential, particularly for those of us who supported the war.
We will never know what might have happened had Saddam Hussein and his sons been left in power. Nor do we know how Iraq will evolve; history’s judgment in five years or 10 may look very different than today’s. But the picture today is dire, and very different from what we would have hoped or predicted four years ago. The cost in lives, injuries and dislocations, to Americans and Iraqis, has been tragic; the opportunity costs for U.S. leadership globally have been immense. So there is an obligation to reassess. What have we learned?….
An overarching lesson is that the failure of diplomacy is not a sufficient argument for war. It seems as evident today as it was four years ago that sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime were eroding and that the U.N. Security Council had no appetite to prolong “containment” in any meaningful form. David Kay’s postwar report suggests that Saddam Hussein would have used the resulting loosening of bonds to build a dangerous arsenal. Yet we should have considered that not as an argument for war but only as a predicate for beginning to weigh war’s risks and benefits.
Such weighing must include a far more aggressive challenge to prevailing wisdom than we offered. We were not wrong that Iraqis, like all human beings, crave freedom. But people also crave security. Their loyalties to country may jockey with loyalties to tribe and sect. We may have underestimated the impoverishment brought about by misrule and sanctions and the brutalization born of totalitarian cruelty. We underestimated, too, the regime’s determination to fight back and its resourcefulness in doing so.
Clearly we were insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports. It would almost be comforting if Mr. Bush had “lied the nation into war,” as is frequently charged. The best postwar journalism instead suggests that the president and his administration exaggerated, cherry-picked and simplified but fundamentally believed — as did the CIA — the catastrophically wrong case that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented to the United Nations.
The question that Gen. David H. Petraeus posed (as recounted in Rick Atkinson’s history, “In the Company of Soldiers”) as he led the troops of his 101st Airborne Division from Kuwait across the Iraq border, “Tell me how this ends?” — that question must be the first to be asked, not the last. The answer won’t always be knowable. But the discussion must never lose sight of the inevitable horrors of war. It must not be left to the generals in the field. And it must assume, based on experience from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, that a U.S. commitment, once embarked upon, will not soon be over.
We raised such issues in our prewar editorials but with insufficient force. In February 2003, for example, we wrote that “the president [must] finally address, squarely and in public, the question of how Iraq will be secured and governed after a war that removes Saddam Hussein, and what the U.S. commitment to that effort will be. . . . Who will rule Iraq, and how? Who will provide security? How long will U.S. troops remain? . . . Many of these questions appear not to have been answered even inside the administration. . . .” They were still unanswered when the war, which we nevertheless supported, began. That should never happen again….
Unfortunately, none of this provides bright guidelines to make the next decisions easier — not even those facing the nation right now in Iraq. It’s tempting to say that if it was wrong to go in, it must be wrong to stay in. But how Iraq evolves will fundamentally shape the region and deeply affect U.S. security. Walking away is likely to make a bad situation worse. A patient, sustained U.S. commitment, with gradually diminishing military forces, could still help Iraq to move in the right direction.