I WAS AN EARLY supporter of the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since 2003, my firsthand experiences in Iraq have shaken my faith in large-scale demonstrations of military power on land, but I cannot disavow my earlier support, because it was also based on firsthand experiences in Iraq.
To know a totalitarian regime abstractly is different from knowing it intimately. Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying that going to Damascus from Baghdad was like coming up for liberal humanist air. People talked furtively in Syria; in Iraq, nobody breathed a syllable of opposition. The whole country was like an illuminated prison yard. I was emotionally affected. Recent events make it easy to forget just how bad Iraq was back then.
The way to avoid tragedy is to think tragically. Those who invaded the Balkans spoke in idealistic terms about the peoples there, but they generally executed their plans as if they also knew the worst about them. Those whose task it was to plan the invasion and occupation of Iraq not only spoke in idealistic terms about the Iraqis, they apparently believed their own rhetoric to the exclusion of other, more troubling realities.
We are not at the end of things in Iraq. Worse, we are in the middle of them. A national unity government will be a bunch of men in bad suits without institutions at their disposal, save for the United States military.
My most recent searing, first-hand impression of Iraq, from last December, is this one: one town and village after another getting back on its feet, with residents telling American troops not to leave.