In a recent interview with the New York Times, the writer Toni Morrison said, “I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq.”
Her request is not unreasonable. We heard similar arguments a lot in recent weeks as we marked the 10th anniversary of the war. There is widespread agreement that the American invasion of Iraq was provoked by a series of lies, neuroses, venalities and delusions.
And so much of what has happened over the past 10 years in Iraq has been undeniably disastrous. The cost in Iraqi and American blood and treasure is appalling, and the damage done to our country’s reputation — and to the ideas that animate liberal interventionism — may be irreparable. (Just ask the people of Syria, who are struggling against tyranny without much help from the United States.)
One thing I’ve noticed over the past two weeks, however, is that Iraqis themselves haven’t often been asked about their opinion of the war. Iraq, after President George W. Bush failed to accomplish his mission, was a place of violence and chaos, but before the invasion, it was a charnel house. Saddam Hussein’s regime murdered as many as 1 million Iraqis in its years in absolute power. Many Americans forget this. Most Iraqis don’t.
The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who wrote the best book on Iraq (“The Forever War”), recently recalled a visit, shortly after the invasion, to one of Saddam’s torture chambers, a place called Al Hakemiya. He met a man there who identified himself as Al-Musawi. The two visited a room where Al-Musawi’s “arms had been nearly torn from their sockets.” He had been hung from the ceiling and electrocuted.
“Today, in 2013 — a decade later — it’s not fashionable to suggest that the American invasion of Iraq served any useful purpose,” Filkins continued. “But what are we to make of Iraqis like Al-Musawi? Or of torture chambers like Al Hakemiya? Where do we place them in our memories? And, more important, how should they shape our judgment of the war we waged?”
His suggestion: “Ask the Iraqis — that is, if anyone, in this moment of American navel-gazing, can be bothered to do so.”
I took Filkins’ charge to heart, and asked another graduate of Saddam’s torture chambers, a man named Barham Salih, what he thought of the invasion, 10 years on.
Today, Salih is the chairman of the board of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, which provides a liberal education in a place not previously known for such a phenomenon. In recent years, Salih has served as both the deputy prime minister of Iraq and as prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. He was in the camp of people who argued that Saddam’s decision to commit genocide against Iraqi Kurds (sometimes with chemical weapons) in the late 1980s made his removal a moral imperative.
I asked him if he thought the invasion was worth it.
“From the perspective of the Kurdish people — and I dare say the majority of the Iraqi people — it was worth it,” he said. “War is never a good option, but given our history and the brutality of Saddam’s regime, it may have been the only other option to end the genocidal campaign waged by Saddam against the Kurds and other communities in Iraq.”
Here is where his answer became a lament. “I must admit, however, that 10 years on, Iraq’s transition is, to say the least, characterized by unrealized expectations, both for Iraqis and for our American liberators. Iraq is not the friendly democracy that the U.S. had hoped for, and it is far from the secure, inclusive democracy that Iraqis deserved and aspired to.”
He went on to blame Iraqis, rather than Americans, for the failures of the past decade. “Much can be said about U.S. missteps and miscalculations in this process, but there is no denying that Iraqi political leadership bears prime responsibility for squandering a unique opportunity to deliver to their people. This has been nothing short of a drastic failure of leadership on our part! The Kurdistan region offers hope that all is not lost in Iraq.”
I asked Salih to answer the argument that the Kurds — who make up almost 20 percent of Iraq’s population — were, by 2003, mainly living in relative safety in a region protected by an American-enforced no-fly zone. In other words, the invasion wasn’t a humanitarian necessity at that moment.
“All Iraqis lived under a regime that had complete disdain for human life,” he said. “Executions and killings continued at will. Thousands of Iraqis were being sent to the mass graves. The Kurds were never safe, as they knew that Saddam could at any time decide to reconquer the no-fly zone.”
He went on, “Saddam was a menace to the Kurds, to the other Iraqi communities, and an inherent danger to the region. He was, from our perspective in this part of the world, a grave and mortal danger that we could never be safe from while he was still around.”
I take Toni Morrison’s beliefs seriously. The serial and tragic mistakes of the Bush administration, and the naiveté of people like me, make questioning the value of the invasion necessary.
I thought that Iraq, with competent American help, could make the transition to at least semi-democracy, even after suffering such physical and psychological damage during the bleak years of Saddam’s reign.
But those who believe the invasion was an act of insanity — especially those who fashion themselves as advocates for human rights, dignity and liberation — should at least ask Saddam’s many victims for their opinion on the matter before rendering final judgment.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.