Even if my friend poses as being interested merely in establishing "truth" rather than assigning political credit, it is either naive or disingenuous not to realize that the question of causality and the question of political credit/blame are inextricably bound up with each other.
I just got through reading a Charles Krauthammer article that has been making the rounds on the right side of the blowhardsphere. It's a good example of triumphal about current goings on in the ME. To those on the right, occurrences in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, etc etc. are all positive and are all a direct result of Iraq. Ridiculous. To those on the left, these occurrences are all meaningless and have absolutely nothing to do with Iraq even if they were important. Just as ridiculous.
There is only one intellectually honest position: The importance of current movements in the ME is currently unknown. More importantly, causation by the invasion of Iraq is unknown. Period.If you want to be only slightly intellectually dishonest, you can go out on a limb and say that Iraq had some salutary causative effect, but just how much is unknown. I think this is reasonable. It's hard to imagine the protests in Lebanon being quite so big as they were without the elections in Iraq, for instance, but there are also currents and undercurrents there that are totally separate. There is a continuum between full causation and no causation, and the only thing you can say is that the answer is somewhere in the grey area, in a range that we cannot know...
I am not interested in assigning "credit". I am interested in delineating the boundaries of truth. None of it is my credit nor my fault, so I have no stake in the outcome.... I guess you can say that the burden of proof is on the right to claim a causality on the Iraq war. But then again, so much more has happened in the politics of the ME since that war than in the long period of time before it that ascribing it all to chance is just as ridiculous. This, then is your epistemological position: "Sure all these things happened immediately after the Iraq war, but that's just a coincidence!" You must see that this, as well, is hardly convincing. All I am advocating is reserving judgment in view of a dearth of facts.
Consider first what has become the Right's Exhibit A in trying to show that the Bush Doctrine is achieving its alleged goal of spreading liberty and freedom: Lebanon. I'll happily concede that the way things are unfolding in Lebanon has been shaped by the elections in Iraq. People on the streets of Beirut say that the Iraqi elections were an inspiration, so presumably that's so -- even if everyone also agrees that those elections were but one variable among many informing the political mood in Beirut. In fact, most Lebanese seem to consider the Ukrainian example a more inspiring case than the Iraqi one. (And please, don't make me laugh by claiming that Iraq War II is responsible for what has happened in Ukraine.)
Second, even if one gives Iraq War II and subsequent Iraqi elections total and exclusive causal credit for what's happening in Lebanon (which, last I checked, was a horrific political murder, a bunch of street demonstrations, and Syrian withdrawal into the Bekaa highlands -- good news, to be sure, but let's not get overexcited), the political progress in Lebanon alone scarcely makes Iraq War II worth it. Yet it is precisely this that the partisan right is suggesting.
Third, I am unconvinced that the positive things couldn't have been achieved in ways that would have been far less costly to the U.S. and the Iraqis in terms of blood, treasure, and prestige. For example, since the late 1970s the U.S. has been giving the Egyptians billions in aid annually. Don't you think that (the threat of) withholding that aid might have convinced old Hosni to make the same (very minor, it must again be emphasized) movement toward holding real elections? (Such an approach might actually have saved the U.S. money, instead of costing us $250b and counting.) Might have been worthing giving a shot, no? Hell, it might still be worth giving a shot.
Fourth, whatever causal role Iraq War II may have had in whatever good news is emanating from the Middle East today, it's hard to argue that the sum of the political motion is unambiguously positive. Libya? No move toward democratization there, just a corrupt oil deal. Iran? By all reports the hardliners are in firmer control than before the Iraq War II, and sporting a more defiant military stance. Saudi? Give me a break. And how about Algeria, Yemen, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Dubai, or Pakistan? In sum, it's not clear that we have much to celebrate: as you go down the list of countries in the region as a whole, instead of cherry-picking the good news stories du jour, the direction of movement is hardly clear.
Finally, what's happening in all these countries seems to me almost entirely beside the moral point. The first and overwhelming case on which you have to judge the morality of Iraq War II is on how things are going in Iraq itself. No one can reasonably dispute that. Though things in Iraq seem to be going a bit better of late, if you read Juan Cole's blog, which summarizes the daily reports on the mayhem still reigning there, it's difficult to make the case that things are better for the average Iraqi than they were under late-Saddam, and it's certainly impossible to say that the situation is actually good for the Iraqi people.
(Just to focus on the American experience in Iraq, do you realize that US Embassy employees are forbidden to travel by land the ten miles to Baghdad airport because it is so dangerous, and have to be helicoptered in and out of the capital? Mission Accomplished!)
In fact, as everyone knows, the ongoing security disaster in Iraq is the overwhelming story of Iraq War II aftermath. Which is precisely why the defenders of the war are trying to change the subject by focusing on what's happening elsewhere, outside Iraq. This is a somewhat desperate move, in my view, but it is being abetted by the fact that media are suffering from Iraq fatigue. Just how many times can you lead with a story about a police station in Baghdad getting blown up? By the fiftieth time this happens, it's not "news" any more.
It's just the daily reality we have wrought in Iraq.