Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.
The many recent retrospectives upon the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq highlight that the war is widely viewed as a disastrous blunder, if not a crime. Past support for it is seen as a cause for repentance. But I was ambivalently pro-war in 2003, and remain unrepentantly ambivalent today.
There is no denying that Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction -- the ostensible reason for the invasion -- weren't there. It is also fairly clear that the Bush administration disregarded evidence that did not suit its purposes (though the belief that Hussein regime was hiding weapons was shared by many Democrats). And few would disagree that the occupation was badly mismanaged, due in large part to the administration's arrogance and incompetence.
Yet the truth is also that no one knows what kind of world we would be facing today if we had not gone to war. Some, such as President George W. Bush's speechwriter David Frum, have suggested that a Hussein regime left intact in 2003 would have grown far more dangerous due to new wealth from rising oil prices. And, assuming that the Arab Spring would still have broken out and reached Iraq, the human toll from the ensuing civil and sectarian strife might well have exceeded that of the invasion and its aftermath.
What's more, there's an important group of people that does not see this war as utterly pointless: the Iraqis themselves.
The days when jubilant crowds in Baghdad celebrated Hussein's downfall and greeted American soldiers are long gone. Yet numerous surveys since then have found the Iraqi people more or less evenly split on whether the invasion was right or wrong; in 2009, only 28 percent saw it as "absolutely wrong." (The pool of respondents, it is worth noting, included people who held privileged positions under Saddam Hussein.) In various surveys, as many as three out of four Iraqis agree that Hussein's removal was worth it despite the hardships, with only a quarter preferring the way things were in prewar Iraq.
Iraqis today have freedom of speech, religion and political activity that would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago. Indeed, President Barack Obama has acknowledged these gains despite his long-standing opposition to the war. In his 2010 Oval Office speech on the war's official end, he stated that the American armed forces "defeated a regime that had terrorized its people" and that, despite all the challenges, "Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny."
Of course, no sane person would argue that the United States has a mandate to overthrow oppressive regimes everywhere. Nor would anyone claim that the war in Iraq was an unmitigated human rights triumph. Critics of the war have a powerful point when they argue that abuses by U.S. troops have compromised our national moral standing -- and such abuses are virtually unavoidable when foreign troops act as an occupying force.
But the left-wing cliche of the war as American slaughter of Iraqis is simply wrong. Nearly 90 percent of the post-invasion Iraqi casualties have been at the hands of fellow Iraqis, in sectarian or insurgent violence, according to an analysis by King's College London. And, whatever the failings of U.S. military justice, Iraqis mistreated by American soldiers had a vastly better chance at protection and redress than Iraqis terrorized by Hussein's henchmen.
History's final verdict on Operation Iraqi Freedom is not in yet. But it is not too early to say that Americans are not the villains in this story. That role belongs to the late dictator who so brutalized his people that millions of them were ready to welcome a foreign invasion -- and, later, to the fanatics who unleashed carnage on their own.