The cost of the Iraq war was high. Almost 4,500 American servicemen and women died, and many more were injured. American taxpayers paid billions of dollars. Was the Iraq war worth it? Yes.
Despite pre-war intelligence failures, the facts remain: Saddam Hussein started two wars, used chemical weapons, and subsidized suicide bombers. Saddam's lieutenants believed he had weapons of mass destruction and would use them. This was no war of choice: Sanctions had collapsed; containment failed. Had President Bush not unseated the Iraqi leader, Iraqi documents show Saddam would have reconstituted his unconventional weapons programs.
Nor was the decision to pursue democracy in post-Saddam Iraq wrong. One-in-six Iraqis had fled Saddam's Iraq. These refugees had no trouble accepting democracy in the United States or Europe. Arab culture is not the problem; absence of rule-of-law is.
Iraq's liberation reverberated throughout the region. Before Saddam's fall, dictators used the Arab-Israeli conflict to deflect attention from their own failings. Iraq's transformation sparked debate about democracy. Autocrats tried to associate reform with chaos. It did not work. While Arab intellectuals condemned the invasion, they debated American mistakes not to delegitimize democracy but to improve it. Democracy in Iraq was no fool's dream. Bush deserves credit for changing Arab political debate and presaging the Arab Spring.
Certainly, mistakes blighted reconstruction. Rather than help the Iraqi government reconstitute itself and leave, Americans wasted billions of dollars trying to run the country themselves. That parts of Iraq boom today have less to do with American aid, and more to do with Iraqi resourcefulness. Democratization may be wise, but foreign assistance is not if it fuels corruption.
Naïve faith in diplomacy also hampered Iraq's rebound. Iraq's neighbors never sought a stable, secure Iraq, and waste no effort to spoil the new Iraq's potential. Iraqis paid with their lives for the State Department's naïve belief in the sincerity of Iraq's neighbors.
Critics castigate Bush for involving America in a war they say was unnecessary, expensive, and poorly planned. President Harry S Truman faced the same criticisms for the Korean War. Time proved Truman's critics wrong, as juxtaposition of North and South Korea demonstrates.
Alas, Truman's successors understood that success required long-term commitment. Our true mistake is the severance of any real partnership with Iraq. It is this abandonment—symbolized by the December 2011 withdrawal, that truly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.