Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Emmott's Farewell

Bill Emmott, in his final column as editor of "The Economist," stands by his support of the war to overthrow Saddam:

This will outrage some readers, but I still think the decision was correct — based on the situation at that time, which is all it could have been based on. The risk of leaving Saddam in power was too high. Outside intervention in other countries' affairs is difficult, practically, legally and morally. It should be done only in exceptional circumstances, and backed by exceptional efforts. Iraq qualified on the former. George Bush let us — and America — down on the latter. So, however, did other rich countries: whatever they thought of the invasion, they had a powerful interest in sorting out the aftermath. Most shirked it.

The only argument against our decision that seems to me to have force is that a paper whose scepticism about government drips from every issue should have been sceptical about Mr Bush's government and its ability to do things properly in Iraq. This is correct: we should have been, and we were. But when the choice is between bad options and worse ones, a choice must still be made. Great enterprises can fail — but they fail twice over if they take away our moral courage and prevent us from rising to the next challenge.

That looks about right to me. At this point, that's what those of us who supported the war are left with. I said at the beginning it will be 20 years before we know if it's a good idea, but even if it turns out spectacularly well in 2023, it will be through some mechanism I didn't foresee or predict.

But I absolutely would support it again. I grew up with an America that used its power often in twisted ways -- twisted by the artificial pressures and fears of the Cold War and summed up by the phrase "He's a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch." For once, then, I got to see all that might used to do something that actually aligned with our national values: to give a perfectly oppressed people an imperfect liberty, as the French and the Dutch gave us in 1778.

Oh, of course the Iraq War was "about" a whole lot more than that. It was about the oil (how could it not be?), and about the grudge, and about a gritty and practical matter of making the world safe for the West, and about the doubt about what Saddam had and what he was doing with it. All in all, it was a matrix-point decision (mistaken, willfully, by many in the anti camp as a "shifting rationale"). It was a sad choice that was the best among seriously crappy alternatives. It ought to have worked. Among the lessons to be learned is another one I'd add to Emmott's short list of what we ought to have seen coming: If you can't explain a war in 10 words or less, don't start it.