I meant to link Brian Doherty’s column from last week, which makes a number of sound points, of which perhaps the most important is that in war even more than in most cases, assessing how things worked out “in the end” is often a matter of when you decide to stop the story. Eventually, Iraq will be a more-or-less tolerable place to live, at which point someone will doubtless announce that the war was a success “in the end.” Perhaps still later, some form of blowback from our intervention will make it seem like a bad idea once again. I note this not so much to grind my anti-war axe, but as a reminder that there’s a seductive tendency to judge policies primarily by their most obvious consequences for the present moment, and to discount any costs or benefits in the past. It’s the happy ending that makes for an upbeat movie, whatever might have happened on the way to the denouement. So it’s always helpful to recall that history is not a story, and nothing ever ends.
Update: Yglesias links the same piece, and various commenters manage to miss the point. It would be unfortunate if, when Iraq eventually settles down, people conclude that the war was therefore a success. This is not because it would be unfortunate for Iraq to settle down, depriving us of a cudgel to whap Bush with or whatever. It would be unfortunate because Iraq is bound to settle down sooner or later, but this will not actually mean the war was a good idea. The war is already not worth it, even if Iraq becomes tolerably peaceful and functional next week. The “unfortunate” part would be the drawing of false inferences about the desirability of spreading democracy by force of arms based on a skewed analysis that only or disproportionately focuses on whether Iraq is (someday, for the survivors) better off than it was in 2001.
Update II: Lest I be accused of base-stealing Ross Douthat is obviously right that the wisdom of the war on the whole and the wisdom of keeping troops in Iraq for whatever additional span of time are distinct questions. The prospect that the country will stabilize soon (as opposed to eventually) and remain stable is not a reason for regarding the war as “successful” on the whole, though it might be a reason for thinking it was or is right to stick it out.