The Iraq war has been a disaster; that much is certain. Although we lack the benefit of the historical counter-factual, it is likely that Iraq is worse now (and will be into the foreseeable future) than it would have been had the country continued under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Obviously, there are so many unknowns that speculation on what could have been is problematic.
What is inarguable is that U.S. interests would have been better served with a different set of policies. The war has already led to tens of thousands of American casualties and its steadily increasing price tag is likely to top a trillion dollars. It is no stretch of the imagination to envision ways in which our blood, treasure, and political capital could have been much better utilized for both our national and global interests.
But our errors and foibles, and even the atrocities of events such as Abu Ghraib, do not in any way suggest a moral equivalency between us and the people we are fighting.
The overwhelming majority of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq are doing their best to help improve the situation, to protect civilians, to build schools and hospitals, and to defeat those who are trying to plunge the country into the depths of an even more horrific civil war. Whatever one’s views on the war, it is important to recognize that American soldiers, almost to the last, are on the side of the good. Such simple black and white moral statements are often ridiculed here in America, especially by the left and sometimes for legitimate reason, but not in this case.
And just as most of the U.S. military is currently engaged in good works, the foes we are fighting are truly evil. I do not use such a phrase lightly. I reserve it for those who go out of their way to maximize civilian casualties: teenage girls at a university, men waiting for jobs, regular people pulled into a gas station. I reserve it for inhuman human beings who drill holes in people’s heads and dump their bodies on the streets, who assassinate people who dare to register voters.
I make these statements because sometimes I get the sense that many Americans see the chaos in Iraq, much of which we have helped to create, and assume that our position is morally compromised or corrupt. Even in an unnecessary and incompetently waged war such as this, there still exist clear moral lines that deserve to be respected by everyone: regardless of their views on the war’s ultimate legitimacy, regardless of their views on the men who launched it. I think this is important not because of any American exceptionalism, or any feeling that we are always on the side of the good, but because it corrupts our own morals if we fail to distinguish between motivations that are just and those that are contemptible.
Unfortunately in this war our policies may have actually helped to unleash some of the most brutal forces in a society already brutalized by decades of dictatorship. It is our responsibility now to extricate ourselves in a way that allows us to provide humanitarian relief and minimize the crisis, while also maintaining our right to strike any Al Qaeda cells that take root.