Several news stories, both in print and on television, have discussed the “end of the Iraq War.” A ceremony yesterday at Baghdad’s airport marked the conclusion of the war, at which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta presided.
Of course, the war is not really over. It is not even clear that U.S. involvement is at an end. True, combat troops left last year. And troops engaged in training activities will leave now. But, the Pentagon still has plenty of contractors on the ground to protect the sprawling U.S. embassy and American interests. They contractors do not operate with the immunity our troops had, and the reason our troops are leaving now rather than later is because the U.S. and Iraqi governments failed to reach agreement about extending that immunity.
Nor is it the case that the war in Iraq is over for the people who have been most affected by it, the people who live in Iraq. There is no indication that sectarian strife will give way to peaceful aspiration or the democratic resolution of different interests. Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, who did not show up at yesterday’s ceremony, appears to have the makings of a dictator. The political situation is sufficiently chaotic, and the partisans sufficiently well armed, that it is wishful thinking to imagine that the killing is at an end. Standing behind it all is Iran, a country that loves nothing more than destabilizing the region.
Still a chapter in American foreign policy closes. It is the ugliest chapter in American foreign policy yet written. No one except his family and his clique mourns the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. He was a vicious dictator, capable of petty as well as political violence. What existed before the U. S. troops arrived is badly described as “peace.” It was not peace. It was subjugation and tyranny. But, in order to remove Hussein, America committed the biggest blunder in its foreign policy history. Even if the people in Iraq wanted to be free of Hussein, and I believe no one loves living in chains, people the world over would rather be captive to their own homegrown tyrants than to foreign ones. This is one of many things the Bush administration failed to understand ten years ago.
The Bush administration failed to understand many things. It believed its own propaganda about weapons of mass destruction. It thought that democracy could be introduced with ease – remember Donald Rumsfeld’s assurances that the war would be quick, easy and cheap? – as if you could fly in Jeffersonian democracy as easily as you can fly in the 101st Airborne. Crucially, it failed to understand that chaos can be worse than tyranny, more violent, more vicious, more intractable. It also failed to understand that the only “winner” from our decision to invade Iraq would be the much more dangerous regime in Iran. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but even evil men can do something good now and then, and Hussein served as a check against the mullahs in Iran. For all these reasons, the decision to invade Iraq stands out as the single worst foreign policy decision ever made by a U.S. president. That decision will stalk George W. Bush’s place in history as certainly as Watergate stalked Richard Nixon’s. It is an indelible stain, although listening to the GOP candidates for the presidency you would not know it.
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You may have noticed that in the sentences above I have employed a clunky construction, “people who live in Iraq,” rather than referring to the Iraqi people. The construction is clunky but careful. There is no such thing as the Iraqi people. Iraq is not a nation the way France or Germany or Israel is a nation. Iraq is a collection of oil fields, deserts and cities with a flag, its boundaries carved out somewhat arbitrarily by Great Britain after World War I. To use a current term, the idea of an “Iraqi people” is “invented” although Mr. Gingrich has failed to take note of that fact. The Kurds in the north do not share any sense of affinity with the Shia in the south and the Sunni everywhere look to their own for protection and political identity. To be sure, if we were transported back to ante-bellum America, we would discover that people were more likely to identify as a “Virginian” or a “New Yorker” than as an American. Our sense of national identity was forged over time and only after the enormous sacrifices of the Civil War. The people in Iraq may yet craft a sense of national identity and they, too, may have to pass through the horrors of a full-scale civil war to achieve it. I hope not: They have suffered enough. But, it is more than obvious that the political leaders of the different factions in Iraq do not care much about the suffering of others.
The past ten years have been years of tragedy, but a specific kind of tragedy. The war in Iraq was not an act of God like an earthquake. It was a tragedy in the Shakespearian sense, in which the hubris of Bush and his coterie of advisors got the better of their judgment, in which a fatal flaw brings down the grandiose dreams entertained by the tragedians and human misery is the price to be paid. The only good thing to be said about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is that it is now mostly over. We achieved nothing. We improved nothing. We liberated no one. We besmirched out reputation. And we killed many, many people. I hope the American electorate will think long and hard before they entrust political power to a party that seems not to have learned the obvious lessons to be drawn from our invasion and occupation of Iraq and who speak recklessly about confronting Iran. And, I hope the left, which seems to love nothing more than beating up on President Obama most days, will at least give him credit for bringing this shameful episode in American foreign policy to a close.