Painful as it is to acknowledge, this is not because the US is taking a hands-off approach to Syria. It’s because we aren’t. We and our European allies are backing the Islamist leaders of the insurgency, including dispatching shipments of arms. Hagel says he fully endorses the Obama policy in Syria (see interview).
In August 2011, some of these developments were not as clear as they are now. But Hagel spoke as if he were unaware of the stakes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – as if nothing important had changed, and the terrorism of 2001 was still America’s top security problem.
His absurdly false evaluation of the Iraq war seems to be purely emotional, putting Hagel in the company of thousands of overwrought blog readers in the last decade who imagined themselves to be hideously oppressed by the policy choices of the Bush administration. The actual aftermath of the Iraq invasion has been a somewhat remarkable level of pacification, given Iraq’s modern history. For the first time since the 1960s, the region doesn’t have to worry about Iraq’s leadership changing hands in a violent coup – or about its leadership starting a war, firing on foreign shipping, gassing Turks or Iranians, or promoting terrorism abroad.
Americans mentally link Saddam Hussein’s demise with 9/11, but nothing about 9/11 itself guaranteed that Saddam would lose power or cease to be a security problem for the Middle East (and hence, for the world). If Saddam had still been in power in 2011, when the Arab Spring erupted, the whole Middle East would have looked different. Saddam would have wanted to get his finger in the Arab-Spring pie. He styled himself a pan-Arabist leader, and could have had a particular influence in Syria given the Ba’athist ties between the two nations. Moreover, radical Islamists could well have sought to depose Saddam in the Arab Spring, which would probably have meant an Iraq in disruptive chaos today, rather than the relatively stable condition we have.
But the US and a few other nations would also still have been enforcing sanctions and no-fly zones on him, meaning our force posture in the region would have been greater, in some ways, and qualitatively different. (It would also have been the 20th year of sanctions enforcement, a very poor policy outcome.) With Saddam still in power, many of the last decade’s shifts in regional alignments, and outreaches between the US and nations in the surrounding region, would not have happened, or would not have had the same histories.
Hagel considered sanctions a praiseworthy method (see the interview), and applauded their effect, in spite of their endlessness – the complete lack of an end-state in the policy – and the corruption of the regional economy through sanctions evasion, which was making billions of dollars for Iran. (Not to mention the corruption scandal attending the UN’s administration of the oil-for-food program, of which Hagel speaks so highly.)
The world is much better off with Saddam gone and a comparatively stable, comparatively US-friendly Iraq. It is mindless demagoguery – and it was in August 2011 – to keep flogging the theme that the Iraq invasion was a terrible mistake from which terrible consequences will come. The consequences for US and global security have been positive. There have been no bad consequences in that regard, nor is there any prospect of them. Nothing that happens in the future will be a case of something that would have gone better if only we had left Saddam in power and kept enforcing sanctions on him (or, for that matter, had stopped enforcing them).
Prospective secretaries of defense should know better than this. The facts on the ground are different from Hagel’s narrative, and that’s a very bad sign. Hagel’s record, moreover, is one of strenuously opposing military actions that are likely to work, such as the US surge in Iraq in 2007, and the Israeli pursuit of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. His dismissal of reality is integrally linked to this pattern, of course. The combination makes for a very poor prospect as secretary of defense.
Originally published at the Optimistic Conservative.