What the Iraq War Is and What it Isn’t
Let’s start with “isn’t” first:
- It’s not a war just about spreading democracy.
- It’s not a war just about oil.
- It’s not a war just about stopping a brutal dictator who supposedly had weapons of mass destruction.
- It’s not a war of humanitarian intervention.
- It’s not a plot cooked up by some secret cabal of Israeli Zionists and American neocons.
- It is a war partially about oil, partially about spreading democracy, and partially about ousting a brutal dictator.
- It is a war that reflects poorly on the cultural shift toward perpetual growth and expansion of American economic and military interests.
- It is a war fueled by skewed notions of national security and humanitarian intervention.
- It is a war about American military dominance in a region that has American economic interests – in oil, trade and so forth, at its heart.
- It is a war pushed very strongly by the brand of politics known as neoconservatism, which most blatantly embraces such military and economic expansion, but which is certainly not unique in this – only, perhaps, more unabashed.
Look, I opposed the Iraq War in the beginning. I thought it was ludicrous, and the government’s case seemed paper thin. Later, I opposed artificial time tables for withdrawal of American troops, because it struck me as cruel and imprudent and even cowardly to leave a nation in a state of civil war that we essentially instigated. I still oppose withdrawing too quickly, lest the country be sucked into an ever more brutal cycle of civil war and chaos.
But I become more and more dubious that our continued presence is anything more than prolonging the inevitable; that no matter how long we stay, in the end we’ll have to exit, and when we do, the Iraqis will simply have to figure things out on their own. And it will be bloody, and awful, and the violence will last a long, long time. Likely enough, the “democratic government of Iraq” will become ever more despotic, and the country will become even more divided along sectarian lines. No length of stay on the part of the American military can avoid that. Even if we do achieve stability that lasts beyond our own occupation, the only way that stability will be achieved for long will be through the suppression of the Sunnis by the Shiite majority.
Our leaders looked at Iraq and for whatever reason or reasons believed that simply by toppling one very bad guy we could somehow bring democracy, stability, and free trade to a nation so extraordinarily different than anything in the West – and they did this because they believed it served the national interest. Military globalism and the securing of future oil reserves to maintain our projected growth in the future were the driving forces behind this war, and they were done in the belief that democracy promotion works, that if only we can impose democracy across the world we can liberate the world, free up trade, and make the world safer, freer, and more prosperous.
These are, in some sense, noble ideals. The idealism of democracy promotion is its fatal flaw however, because it is blinding. The Iraq War tested this theory and now we’ve learned that imposed freedom doesn’t work, and that inorganic democracy is at best unsustainable. At the very least, we should have learned that such a theory is far too expensive, time consuming, and wasteful.
The Iraq War has cost America in blood, treasure, and a loss of focus on our true priorities. It has led us to erode some of our freedoms, and to sacrifice some of our better ideals. This doesn’t mean that every proponent of the war was ill-intentioned; nor does it mean that there isn’t some validity in the notion that indeed we do have a strategic interest in the future of the Middle East, its resources, and the region at large. But that should call in to question why we are so dependent on oil to begin with, and beyond that, why we as a culture have shifted so many of our priorities to a belief in unending growth that can and should be enforced by an omnipotent military.
It’s all part and parcel of a larger picture. America needs to expand economically. We’ve chosen to do so via globalism and free trade. This on its own may not be the worse thing in the world, but it has also led us to believe that through military might we can achieve the impossible. The world changes slowly. The Middle East is simply a different ballpark than we’re used to, and we weren’t ready for the game the way it unfolded. We weren’t supposed to be ready.
As Andrew Bacevich has noted, we need to put our own house in order before we go marching across the globe thinking we can set all its wrongs to right with a bigger gun than the bad guys have. And the causes of our belief in military dominance go beyond defense to the very fabric of our cutlure, our manifest destiny, our consumerism, our belief in perpetual and liberating growth. There is a place for defense and security, and for the bold and courageous, but we shouldn’t confuse courage with war, nor security with expansion. It’s a tricky balance, but our own exceptionalism could be better realized through ingenuity and hard work than through spreading our defense apparatus across the globe in the hopes of making it a more perfect world.