For the most important belligerents in the Iraq war, the war ended with an enormous victory this week. Shortly after Jalal Talabani was sworn in as the new president of Iraq, Ibrahim Jaafari was appointed as the new prime minister. Saddam Hussein, who reportedly watched much of these proceedings from his jail cell, must have snapped his plastic spork in his apple brown betty at the news. Mr. Talabani, you see, is a Kurd and Mr. Jaafari is a Shiite.
In a very real sense, George W. Bush didn't start the war in Iraq. He finished it. For decades, the Kurds and the Shiites fought bloody wars for self-determination, often with the United States standing in the way. In 1975, for example, Henry Kissinger helped broker an accord between Iraq and Iran that left the Kurds high and dry. Without the backing of Washington and Tehran (then run by the Shah), the Kurdish rebels were pulverized. A little more than a decade later, the U.S. supported Saddam during the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, in which 100,000 to 200,000 men, women and children were killed, in some instances with chemical weapons. Our policies were not intentionally sinister; there were strong national-interest arguments on the other side. But certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, America comes up short in moral calculus.
We lost even more credibility in 1991, when America fought a just war in the name of national self-determination - but only for Kuwaitis. Sure, we encouraged Shiites and Kurds to rise up, but when Saddam slaughtered them with his helicopter gunships, we stood back and did nothing.
America established the famous no-fly zones in the north and the south in order to end the slaughter and keep Saddam in his famous "box." For some bizarre reason, most Americans took the status quo in the 1990s as a state of "peace" between America and Iraq, despite the fact that Saddam tried to have the first President Bush murdered and we bombed the dickens out of various military installations in Iraq repeatedly throughout the decade.
America had no peace treaty with Iraq. We had a ceasefire. Saddam consistently defied the terms of that ceasefire, so we bombed him for it. After he tried to murder George H.W. Bush in 1993, we lobbed cruise missiles at him. In 1996, Saddam invaded the no-fly zone in the north, capturing Irbill. We bombed and extended the no-fly zone even closer to Baghdad. In 1998, Saddam refused to comply with the U.N., so the U.S. and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox. More bombing. And so on.
This didn't necessarily go unnoticed by the American press, it just went under-noticed. For example, in 1999 the editors of the Chicago Tribune decried the paucity of information about what they called "America's Other War." "We know there's shooting going on, but to what purpose?" they asked. "What is the Clinton administration trying to accomplish with this low-grade war?"
Interestingly, the one group of people who understood clearly that there was a war on was the hard left, which consistently held rallies, sit-ins, tofu-marshmallow roasts, etc. against America's war "on" Iraq. Despite their dishonest and/or disputable assertions about who was to blame and what the repercussions were, the leftists understood that economic sanctions, military patrols of their airspace, and, of course, bombing were not acts of peace. The funny thing was, the moment George Bush started talking about finally pulling the band-aid off, the left immediately started griping about how we needed to give "peace one more chance." The French, who had been working tirelessly to end the sanctions regime, abruptly claimed the sanctions had been working great. (We now know why some French officials liked the sanctions, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Suddenly, sanctions and no-fly zones weren't the stuff of war, but the stuff of peace.
In other words America's war with Iraq overlaid an older war - or wars - within Iraq. Ibrahim Jaafari and Jalal Talibani were both anti-Saddam combatants long before America was anti-Saddam. Jaafari had been the spokesman for the militant Dawaa Party. He went into exile in the 1970s when Saddam crushed it. Talibani headed one of the two main parties seeking an independent Kurdistan.
The hope is that Messrs. Jaafari and Talibani have seen the light and understand that rather than fight a sectional conflict, the brighter future lies in uniting their country. They certainly seem to be saying the right things in this regard, and there's good reason to hope they mean it. More important, and more telling, is that these men attained their positions through an imperfect but nonetheless historically heroic democratic process. Mr. Talibani is not only the first Kurdish head of state in the region, he's arguably the most prominent Kurdish Muslim leader since Saladin. Jaafari, whatever his faults, represents the democratic aspirations of the majority of Iraqis.
This is truly joyous, exciting stuff to behold. It wouldn't have happened were it not for George W. Bush, and that fact seems to blind many from appreciating it.