It is one thing to say U.S. troops must remain in Iraq until a stable government is established that does not threaten us or its neighbors. It is another thing to say -- given everything we know now -- that we ought to retrospectively conclude invading Iraq was the right thing to do.
President Bush said both things in a recent speech marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion.
"The answers are clear to me," he said. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision -- and this is a fight America must and can win."
For President Bush to argue today that removing Saddam was the right decision is understandable. Although Congress authorized the war, Bush decided to invade. Our troops are still there -- under his command. The war is not yet won.
But do we want future presidents to decide that repeating a war like Iraq -- given everything we know now -- would be the right thing to do? Is President Bush, by defending even now his original decision to invade Iraq, authoring a new and viable doctrine of when the United States ought to go to war that Americans should endorse and embrace?
I say: No.
What if our top military and intelligence officers had in fact gone to President Bush in early 2003, before he ordered the invasion, and said: Mr. President, our initial intelligence estimates were wrong. Saddam has destroyed his weapons of mass destruction. He is not cooperating with al-Qaida. If we invade Iraq and attempt to establish a democratic government, our analysis indicates the most influential person there will be an Iranian-born fundamentalist Shiite ayatollah, who will be able to veto our political prescriptions with his fatwas.
We estimate, Mr. President, that the vacuum created by the destruction of Saddam's army will be filled by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and terrorists, indigenous Sunni insurgents and terrorists, and a newly minted Iraqi branch of al-Qaida.
No matter what kind of constitution we urge them to write, Mr. President, any elected government in Baghdad is likely to be dominated by Shiite fundamentalist parties with historical and ongoing ties to the revolutionary regime in Tehran.
And, Mr. President, we estimate we will lose about 800 U.S. troops per year in a protracted struggle with the insurgents and terrorists.
Nor, Mr. President, can we estimate how long it will take for the new political order in Baghdad to be established, or for Iraq's new security forces to mature to where we can remove our own forces without risking genocide and a failed state that becomes a permanent haven for al-Qaida.
A president who decided to invade despite such foreknowledge would have been a fool.
In his speech on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, President Bush did not argue that the invasion proved necessary to remove a direct, imminent threat to the United States. Instead, he made humanitarian and ideological arguments.
"The men and women who crossed into Iraq five years ago removed a tyrant, liberated a country and rescued millions from unspeakable horrors," he said. This is a good thing and true. It is not, however, an argument that justifies launching a long, bloody and unpredictable war. If removing tyranny justifies committing the United States to war, President Bush should not be attending the Olympics in the People's Republic of China this summer, he should be sending an army there.
"A free Iraq will fight terrorists instead of harboring them," Bush argued. "A free Iraq will be an example for others of the power of liberty to change the societies and displace despair with hope. By spreading the hope of liberty in the Middle East, we will help free societies take root -- and when they do, freedom will yield the peace that we all desire."
But if lack of liberty -- rather than a radical Islamic ideology -- is what creates terrorists, why were most of the suspects arrested in England in the 2006 liquid bomb plot (which aimed to blow up numerous passenger planes) native-born English citizens? These terrorists were born in the cradle of Western democracy and enjoyed all the political rights Winston Churchill once enjoyed, and yet, they still waged jihad.
Wise men in our civilization have argued for centuries that four conditions must be met to justify war: It must counter a great and certain threat, it must be a last resort, it must have a reasonable chance of success, and it cannot be anticipated to cause more harm than it prevents.
Leaving Iraq now would cause more harm than it prevents. But had our leaders known before invading what we know now, it would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- to justify the invasion by the time-tested criteria of our own tradition.