Ten years ago we went into Iraq. I thought it was the right thing to do. I was convinced that World War II had taught the civilized world that the only way to deal with tyrannical bullies was to stand up to them and refuse to appease them because appeasing them only caused them to attack. The model was Hitler and Stalin. Al Qaeda and Hussein seemed to me to fit that threatening mold and I thought knocking them over was needed to secure a safe future for America, for Democracy, for freedom.
And a few years into the war, I stopped believing what I had believed. I started to notice that we were creating more enemies than we were killing. And I backed off and wondered if I was wrong.
Now I think our attacking Iraq was a very serious mistake. One of the reasons is the main strategic outcome of our war in Iraq was to strengthen Iran. Iraq had been a counterbalance to Iran. Iraq's power is gone, Iran's power has grown. So now what? Attack Iran? Good heavens, no. I have seen enough young Americans lose their lives, limbs, and their normality in the Middle East. I do not want to see more of that.
I think the biggest mistake that America made in Iraq was the terrible intelligence that said Saddam had nukes and other WMD. He didn't. It was a bluff. And our intelligence got it wrong. Big mistake.
I think the second biggest mistake was to destroy the existing institutions of power of the Baath Party and army. There was nothing left, and the country collapsed into civil war amongst the competing tribes.
David Ignatius is one of my most trusted voices on the Middle East. He apologized to his readers today for being wrong about whether the war made sense. He made some key points.
He remembered two powerful conversations that had given him pause in 2003.
The first was a man who had told him that if America were strong enough, they would succeed and the rest of the Middle East would follow. But, America wasn't strong enough. The civil war broke out beyond America's control. And Bush couldn't sell the war to the American voters. The army went off to war, and the country was split.
The second was a man who told him:
"I am sorry for America. You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America."
Personally, I'm tired of being "a country in the Middle East."
Another point he made was that the CIA was dead set against demolishing the Baath Party and the established order. But they lost to Rumsfield and Chalabi. And of course it was W who was the decider. Bush, with the Texas bravado of a kind of hyper-masculinity that defines itself by its toughness. I'm for a new kind of masculinity that defines itself by its brains and heart.
His third, and perhaps most important point, was the enormous importance of dignity in the Arab world. People who are impoverished, dominated, and disenfranchised crave dignity most of all.
So, what do I conclude ten years later?
Do not put Americans in harm's way in the middle of Middle Eastern civil wars.
Stay out of Syria. Stay out of Iran. Let them fight their fights, without the shedding of the blood of American young men and women. Time for the soft powers of persuasion, diplomacy, covert assistance, intelligence, and engagements that are based upon knowledge and tact and and technology and craft and politics rather than force and destruction.