Since Iraq started spinning out of control in April, many supporters and opponents of the war have been pronouncing definitively one way or another: I was wrong. I was right. It's over. Lord knows, I have been tempted by all those sentiments at different times in recent months. But I haven't been willing to pull the trigger one way or another because I still don't feel that the three fundamental questions I had going into this war have been answered. This means a decent outcome--that is, one that tilts Iraq from a country threatening its neighbors and its own people toward a more benign, stable entity that at least allows its people to plan their own future and to develop their potential--is still possible.
Before the war in Iraq started, I argued that Iraq was a black box that had been sealed shut for more than 30 years of Baathist rule. We did not know what was inside, and we would know only after we broke the locks. As such, two questions tugged at me: First, is Iraq the Arab Germany or the Arab Yugoslavia? Is it a country of great natural resources and human talent, caught in the grip of a warped dictator? If we removed the dictator, could the country eventually be normalized and flourish? Or, is Iraq a totally artificial colonial construct that has never congealed--with Kurds, Sunnis, Shia, Turkmen, Assyrians, et cetera, all forced to live together against their will? If it is, such a country is only governable by a Tito-like iron fist--and, once we remove the Baathist iron fist, we would inevitably have to replace it with an American one.
The second question I had was: Was Iraq the way Iraq was because Saddam Hussein was the way Saddam Hussein was--a megalomaniacal fascist who made life in his country nasty, brutish, and short, and who diverted much of Iraq's resources to weaponry and palaces? Or was Saddam Hussein the way Saddam Hussein was because Iraq was the way Iraq was--a congenitally fractured society that could only be held together by a murderous thug? In short, did Saddam make Iraq, or did Iraq make Saddam?
Having been to Iraq three times since the war ended, I still don't have definitive answers, because the only way to answer these two big questions is for the United States to create enough security in Iraq for the will of Iraq's silent majority to manifest itself. A secure environment where Iraqis could look in the mirror and ask themselves for the first time, "Who are we? Who do we want to be?" has simply not been achieved.
WILL WE EVER get these two fundamental questions answered? At this stage, given what the United States has been willing and unwilling, able and unable to do in Iraq, it now all depends on their answer to my third question: How will Iraqis react when they are handed the keys of sovereignty by the United States on June 30? Since American forces have neither the legitimacy nor the numbers to finish the war and truly secure Iraq, the only possible alternative force to do that is the new Iraqi government and whatever military might it is able to muster (backed up, no doubt, by whatever U.S. forces the new Iraqi government feels it can summon without sacrificing its legitimacy). The only way to secure Iraq today is to uncover, destroy, or deter the die-hard Baathists who have been attacking U.S. forces and Iraqi police units, and the Al Qaeda sympathizers who have filtered into the country from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Europe to conduct suicide bombings and wreak havoc. I don't believe non-Arabic speaking U.S. troops can get to the root of either problem. Only Iraqis can do that. The third question, therefore, is whether they will have the will to do so once they are given the way--once they are given the keys to Iraq.
My own reporting in Iraq leaves me feeling torn. On the upside, I found a country with a lot more intermarriage, intermingling of ethnic and religious groups, and Iraqi national identity than I expected. Iraq may become Lebanon on steroids when we leave, but it is not there yet. Partly this is due to the U.S. military presence, but it is also partly due to the fact that most Iraqis desperately do not want to go there. On the downside, I was shocked at how devastated Iraq was from three decades of Saddam's misrule and the last ten years of sanctions--a devastation compounded by Donald Rumsfeld's cavalier attitude toward postwar looting. Iraq looked to me like Babylon with electricity poles. And that leads to another unpleasant surprise—what Christopher Hitchens aptly called "the extent of lumpen Islamization in Iraq, on both the Khomeinist and Wahhabi ends." Under the secular patina of Baathist rule in Baghdad, there is a lot more Tehran and Riyadh in the backstreets and among the urban youth there than anyone knew. This is not easy clay.
So where does all this leave me? There were always two ways to fight this war: One was to come in big, like empire-builders--lots of troops, lots of patience--and transform Iraq over a decade. The other was to come in small, break open the black box, dump out the contents onto the sidewalk, and see what Iraqis would make of it. The Bush team, to the extent that it even thought this through beforehand, chose the latter strategy, and it's too late to change now. That doesn't mean all is lost. It just means Iraq's future will be determined by what's now on the sidewalk--by who Iraqis tell us they are and who they want to be. They still don't know, so surely we can't. We assumed that Saddam's regime could not possibly be the expression of their collective will and identity. If, after they get the keys, they fail to produce an answer, or, worse, collapse into civil war, we will have to take precautions against them. If they succeed, we will applaud. There was way too much hubris a year ago in predicting easy success. Let's avoid a similar hubris today in predicting certain failure.
As for the enterprise as a whole, all I can say is this: The two Arab Human Development reports quantified something that any casual newspaper reader in the last two years could tell—that the Arab-Muslim world is badly tilting in the wrong direction. And the September 11, Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, Tunisia, Morocco, Riyadh, and Khobar attacks by Muslim extremists all underscore how dangerous this is for Muslim civilization and for the world. Once it was clear to me that the Bush team had chosen a warpath, I wanted to see it done in a way that maximized the chances for a decent outcome in Iraq that could help tilt the Arab-Muslim world onto a more positive slope. And "tilt," for me, was the right word, not "transform." Only we can tilt the playing field, but only Iraqis can take advantage of that by transforming their own society and politics--and that takes a generation.
I believed that such an audacious project required so much better planning, so much more patience, and so many more resources than the Bush team devoted. Nevertheless, we are where we are and there is still, despite it all, the possibility of a decent outcome--depending largely on what Iraqis do.
AS FOR THE critics of this whole enterprise, let me simply say this: I am ready to believe that, because we went to Iraq, there is a war on terrorists elsewhere that we are not fighting. You'd have to prove it, but I can believe it. But I know one thing for certain: There is no war on terrorism--which is to say no war on the ideas of intolerance and hatred that spurred the boys of September 11 and their successors to act--that does not get at the issues of Arab governance and misgovernance laid out in the Arab Human Development reports. I never believed that Saddam possessed any WMD that could threaten us, and I never believed his alleged WMD was a legitimate rationale for going to war in Iraq. Saddam was always deterrable by conventional means--because he loved life more than he hated us. I did believe, though, in the importance of regime change and reform across the region, because I always believed that what threatens us most from the Arab-Muslim world were the "people of mass destruction—the PMDs—produced by failing Arab states. These PMDs are undeterrable because they hate us more than they love life. These are young Muslim men and women ready to commit suicide, spurred by their own humiliation at how far behind the rest of the world their civilization has fallen and by bad ideas--ideas of intolerance, anti-pluralism, and anti-modernism, produced in a cauldron of misgovernance and religious obscurantism.
People who are ready to commit suicide using instruments from our daily lives--the car, the airplane, the tennis shoe—are a fundamental threat to open societies because they attack the trust that is needed to keep an open society open. The only way to protect open societies against these forces—short of building a wall--is to find a way to partner with moderate forces in the Arab- Muslim world to tilt it in another direction so that societies there can start to deliver more hope and opportunities for their people and so that different ideas can get a hearing and, one day, prevail. Only Arabs and Muslims can restrain their own.
Maybe trying to tilt Iraq in a different direction to help tilt the entire region will turn out to be a fool's errand. I would argue that it's still too soon to tell. When will we know? If Iraq collapses into civil war or the new Iraqi government proves incapable of organizing reasonably fair elections, this enterprise will rightly be seen as a failure. By contrast, if Iraqis come together around this new government, enough to produce a reasonably fair election and put Iraq on course for some kind of decent federal system of government, this enterprise will rightly be seen as pivotal and positive. We just have to let it play out and influence it as best we can, where we can.
But there is one thing I am as sure of today as I was a year ago, and it is this: Thinking that there is a war on terrorists that doesn't also involve a war on the roots of terrorism was a dangerous illusion on September 11 and remains a dangerous illusion today.
This article originally ran in the June 28, 2008, issue of the magazine.