Arthur Herman: Why Iraq Was Inevitable





[Arthur Herman, who has taught history at George Mason University and Georgetown University, is the author most recently of "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age".]

According to an April 2008 poll in U.S. News & World Report, fully 61 percent of American historians agree that George W. Bush is the worst President in our history. Some of these scholars cite the President’s position on the environment, or on taxes, or on the economy. For most, though, the chief qualification for obloquy lies in Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

In this, of course, the historians are hardly alone: five years after the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, both the mainstream media and America’s political elites treat the Iraq war as a disaster virtually without precedent in our national experience. But while politicians and journalists are not necessarily expected to be adepts of the long view, for professional historians the long view is a defining necessity. As the English historian F.W. Maitland wrote more than a century ago, “It is very hard to remember that events that are long in the past were once in the future.” Hard it may be, but the job of historians is not only to remember it but to judge events accordingly.

In this light—that is, in light of what was actually known at the time about Saddam Hussein’s actions and intentions, and in light of what was added to our knowledge through his post-capture interrogations by the FBI—the decision to go to war takes on a very different character. The story that emerges is of a choice not only carefully weighed and deliberately arrived at but, in the circumstances, the one moral choice that any American President could make.

Had, moreover, Bush failed to act when he did, the consequences could have been truly disastrous. The next American President would surely have faced the need, in decidedly less favorable circumstances, to pick up the challenge Bush had neglected. And since Bush’s unwillingness to do the necessary thing might rightly have cost him his second term, that next President would probably have been one of the many Democrats who, until March 2003, actually saw the same threat George Bush did...


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