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Best Intentions

Why we went, what we've found

THE DICTATORS IN the Arab-Muslim world, and those in Europe who tolerate them, can now rest easier. The Syrian dictator will not be chased into a "spider hole." And the Iranian theocracy will not be sacked by soldiers from West Virginia and Indiana and Vermont. The Iranians will have to secure their own liberty; we know better than to provide it to strangers sure to second- guess the morning after. Yes, America is embattled in Iraq. But its leaders took up the sword against Arab-Muslim troubles and dared to think that tyranny was not fated and inevitable for the Arabs. And, even as this war falls short of what we had wanted, it was an honorable and noble expedition that came after a decade of relentless anti-American subversion and terrorism. Appeasement had not worked. The "moderns," with Bill Clinton as their standard-bearer, had been sure we would be delivered by the marketplace and the spread of the World Wide Web. History had mocked them, and us all. In Kabul and Baghdad, we were simply answering history's call.

"The justice of a cause is not a promise of its success," the editors wrote in these pages in a recent reassessment of the Iraq war. And it is the justice of the war that we need to recall as its fortunes hang in the balance in Iraq and in the scales of American opinion. It's too late to debate whether this was a war of necessity or of choice. For me, it was a just war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the "road rage" of the Arab world and with the culture of terrorism that had put down roots in Arab lands. It was not an isolated band of "misguided" young men who came America's way on September 11, 2001. They emerged out of the Arab world's dominant culture and malignancies. There were the financiers who subsidized the terrorism. There were the intellectuals who winked at the terrorism and justified it. There were the preachers--from Arabia to Amsterdam and Finsbury Park--who gave it religious sanction and cover. And there were the Arab rulers whose authoritarian orders produced the terrorism and who looked away from it so long as it targeted foreign shores.

Afghanistan was the setting for the first battle against Arab radicalism. That desperate, impoverished land had been hijacked, rented if you will, by the Arab jihadists and their masters and financiers. Iraq followed: America wanted to get closer to the source of the troubles in the Arab world. It wasn't democracy that was at stake in Iraq. It was something more limited, but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it. Iraq's political culture had been poisoned by a crude theory of race and a racialist Arabism that had wrecked and unsettled Arab and Muslim life in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tikriti rulers had ignited a Sunni-Shia war within and over Islam. They had given Arabs a cruel view of history--iron and fire and bigotry. They had, for all practical purposes, cut off the Arab world from the possibility of a decent, modern life.

For me, the surprise of this war has been the response of the Shia to the liberty granted them, and to the foreign power that provided it. They have taken the gift, but they have kept their distance from the giver. With the fall of Tikriti despotism, the Shia have come into their own, and their subjugation is behind them. But the incoherence of their politics is the response of a people yet to come to anything resembling "normal" political life. From darkness and fear, they have stepped forth into a blinding light. They take delirium for politics. And, though they know how cruel and indifferent the Arab world was to them during their long nightmare, they remain curiously eager for its approval and bound by its judgment and prohibitions. Someday, they may come to a full political life. But that is little consolation to us and to our soldiers who did battle and paid dearly in Sadr City and Najaf.

IT IS EASY to say that the expedition in Iraq is the product of American innocence. And it is easy to see that the American regent, L. Paul Bremer, didn't find his way to the deep recesses of Iraqi culture. It is painfully obvious that, at the Abu Ghraib prison, some of America's soldiers and military police broke the codes of war and of military justice. In the streets of Falluja and Najaf, the early American hopes of a culture that would be grateful for its liberty, and eager to create a new political order, may have been battered. But there can be no doubting the nobility of the effort. Abu Ghraib isn't the U.S. war, but merely the failure of a small number of our soldiers to honor the mission entrusted to them. I traveled twice to Iraq over the last year. In the tent cities in Kuwait, and in Kirkuk and Mosul and Baghdad, I saw our military up close. Their devotion to the work of rescue was moving; their sympathy for the Iraqis remarkable in the midst of insurgency and war.

This has been a unique kind of war: rifle in one hand, wrench in the other is how one of our commanders described our mission. This was not some "rogue operation" willed by the White House and by the Department of Defense. It wasn't Paul Wolfowitz's war. It was a war waged with congressional authorization and fought in the shadow of a terrible calamity visited upon America on September 11. Sure enough, we didn't have the support of Kofi Annan or of Jacques Chirac. But Americans could be forgiven a touch of raw pride: We hadn't had the approval of Boutros Boutros-Ghali (or of the head of his peacekeeping operations at the time, the same Kofi Annan) or of Franois Mitterrand when America rode to the rescue of the Bosnians in 1995.

My sense of Iraq, and of the U.S. expedition, is indelibly marked by the images and thoughts that came to me on those two trips to that country. A sense of America's power alternated with thoughts of our solitude and isolation in an alien world. The armies and machines—and earnestness—of a great foreign power against the background of a big, impenetrable region: We could awe them and they could outwait us. We could repair their infrastructure, and the insurgents could wreck it. We could "stand up" and train civil defense and police units, and they could disappear just when we needed them. We could entertain for them hopes of a decent political culture, and they could hold up against us a religious bigotry sharpened for combat and intolerance. We are not to stay long: That is clear to us and, for all their protestations to the contrary, to them as well. Politically, the U.S. interlude in Iraq is coming to a close. Beyond the prison of the old despotism, the Iraqis have found the hazards and uncertainties--and promise--of freedom.

It would have been heady and right had they brought about their own liberty, had they demolished the prisons and the statues on their own. And it would have been easier and more comforting had we not redeemed their liberty with such heartbreaking American losses. There might have been greater American support for the war had the Iraqis not been too proud to admit that they needed the stranger's gift and had we come to a decent relationship with them. But we take that world as it is. In Kurdistan, we have provided protection to a people who have made good use of this new order. There is no excessive or contrived religious zeal in Kurdistan, and the nationalism that blows there seems free of chauvinism and delirium. In the rest of the country, we have rolled history's dice. Iraq may not give us the base of power in the Persian Gulf we had hoped for at the outset of the war. We can live without that strategic gain. It is the Iraqis, more than we, who will need the saving graces of moderate politics.

An officer in the Marine Corps, trying to speak to my anxieties about this war, offered a soldier's consolation--the clarifying power of time and of patience. Tell me in 20 years, he wrote, how this war will have turned out, for it will take that long for it to reveal its full harvest. We judge quicker. Without the soldiers' mission, without their poise, we ride the roller coaster of a war whose justice and heartbreak alternate in endless succession. Nowadays, you dread the Department of Defense releases of the mounting number of those predominantly young men lost in the "Iraq theater of operations." Nowadays, you look away in hurt from the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen bringing news of another roadside bomb and another American fatality. It hasn't been easy and it hasn't been cheap, this new military campaign brought about by the coming apart of an Arab-Muslim world unwilling to deal with its despotisms and purveyors of terrorism. It would be a consolation were we to think that, after Kabul and Baghdad, there would be repose and an end to vigilance. But we should know the burning grounds of the Arab-Muslim world better by now. And we can be forgiven the premonition that this isn't the end of the matter.

"WE'RE DUE SOME luck," one of our most astute military leaders in the Iraq theater of operations, Major General Stephen Speakes, wrote me in an e-mail in late May. He was prescient. Our luck came in the most paradoxical of ways. Only days later, the Governing Council selected one of its own, Sheik Ghazi Al Yawar, for the presidency of Iraq. The man hailed from the Shammar, one of the great Arabian tribes, a Sunni tribe with a substantial Shia branch. The Iraqis were done with Bremer's tutelage, and with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Bremer and Brahimi had wanted the 81-year-old Adnan Pachachi for president. The Governing Council's rebellion, and the joy in the city of Mosul, where Yawar was born, was the beginning of our redemption in Iraq.

Our writ had been rejected. And, on that very day, the country's designated prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a Shia secularist given to secrecy—and with strong ties to "reformed" Baathists and former Sunni operatives who had broken with the old regime—acknowledged a debt of gratitude owed by Iraqis to the American-led coalition and its soldiers. Our stewardship of Iraq is still loaded with troubles. But our soldiers have made our luck. A measure of success, and hence of our deliverance, is now in the realm of the possible. Iraqis may yet go beyond us and still find their way. If this comes to pass, we could not hope for a better retrospect of our time, and our mission, in Iraq.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004 issue of the magazine.