Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic (and a friend of mine), has been complaining for a very long time that conservatives haven't shown the sort of introspection liberals have in the wake of the White House's missteps. After all, conservatives historically have looked skeptically on pie-in-the-sky Wilsonian adventures abroad - and especially on the notion that the Pentagon has some sort of Easy Bake Oven nation-building set that can whip up democratic societies overnight. Now it is the liberals and leftists who sound like Kissingerian foreign policy realists, making allowances for barbaric regimes and ridiculing conservatives who needlessly demonized Saddam.
But Saddam was a demon. Since we've been in Iraq, we've confirmed that he killed more than 300,000 Shiites after 1991 alone. We've found up to 30,000 in a single grave. Forty thousand "marsh Arabs" were murdered and their lands drained. We didn't need to confirm what happened to the Kurds.
It's also worth recalling the reason we were in a de facto state of war with Saddam long before the actual war: It was to keep Saddam from doing these sorts of things to Kurds and Shiites again (never mind the Kuwaitis). The no-fly zones, the laughably and tragically inept sanctions regime - which was making Saddam stronger and French and UN bureaucrats richer - the various cruise missile attacks: These were all acts of war necessary to "keep Saddam in his box." And that whole system was falling apart. Bush faced a choice: Let Saddam out of his box or get rid of him. The former would make Saddam a hero, lower the price for defying America and further solidify the law of the jackboot in the Arab world. After 9/11 Bush felt he had no choice at all. We had to force changes in the Arab world before the Arab world forced worse things on us.
Removing Saddam has had unforeseeable bad consequences, as well as some foreseeable ones. But it seems to me that liberals who now think we shouldn't have done it, solely because we didn't do it "just right," are falling prey to their own historic pie-in-the-skyism. There is no "just right" way to do things like this. If there were, we would have toppled Saddam with nerf bats.
Beinart is right that conservatives should do some hard thinking about our experience in Iraq. But no matter how cathartic it may be for liberals to sooth their consciences by saying this isn't the war they signed up for, this is the war we've got. And the shoulda-coulda-wouldas can wait until we win.