The Washington elite decision to invade Iraq occurred for reasons that thinking Americans will bitterly debate for much of the rest of this century. Like it or not, the influence of that decision will be heavy on the shoulders of every person alive on earth for the rest of that person’s life. The question now centers on the lessons we all learn.
Lesson #1: War does not create democracy. If Washington invaded Iraq to defend freedom, the invasion was a disaster. The behavior of the U.S. toward occupied Iraq, the behavior of U.S.forces in Iraq, and the behavior of Iraqi politicians during the occupation have all tarnished the reputation of that ever out-of-reach ideal known as “democracy.”
Lesson #2: The American way of war destroys societies rather than saving them. If Washington invaded Iraq to save the Arab people, its destruction of the most advanced middle class society in the Arab world makes the failure of that goal crystal clear.
Lesson #3: A flashy war somewhere else will trick the American people every time. If Washington invaded Iraq to keep Bush-Cheney in office, the plan worked brilliantly, rescuing an apparently doomed administration. Perhaps the worst president in American history was able to preside over what was, in moral terms, perhaps the most immoral decade in American history, step nimbly over the thousands of dead civilians, ignore the tattered remnants of U.S. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and announce with a grin that being president had been “fun.”
Lesson #4: Empires feast on war. If Washington invaded Iraq to build empire, the lesson to be derived from the perspective of the American people is quite different from the lesson that an empire-builder would derive. Despite being fought to a draw by “rag-tag extremists”—many of whom were in fact genuine nationalists and having its uniformed forces essentially kicked out, the empire-builders have much to savor: Iraq remains, sort of, in the U.S. orbit, with huge and dangerous U.S. mercenary forces evidently planning to remain. Then there’s that monster fortress embassy in the Green Zone. As for the ring of real fortresses, the U.S. military bases, just exactly what is happening to them? More significantly for empire-builders, the war facilitated the establishment of a larger ring of U.S. bases throughout the region, not just surrounding Iran but making clear that, for the moment, the U.S. is the winner of the Central Asian Great Game that Russia and Great Britain used to fight. Of course, the small matter of how to avoid a second embarrassing “victory”—in Afghanistan—remains to be worked out; some of our brilliant strategists are now suggesting the (to empire-builders) obvious solution: expand the failed Afghan adventure to Pakistan.
Lesson #5: Even winning a war can harm your security. OK, maybe the U.S. did not exactly “win” the Iraq war, but it certainly conquered the place and invented its current government. Yet who in the U.S. feels more secure? The war empowered bin Laden for years, multiplied anti-U.S. feeling worldwide, contributed greatly to a continuing U.S. economic mess, left the country profoundly divided, and left the U.S. embarrassingly irrelevant in the Arab world, as became obvious when the White House sat on the sidelines during the heady days of Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, Iran, which empire-builders and Likudniks so love to criticize, is manifestly more significant on the world stage than it was a decade ago. Much more seriously for real strategic thinkers, Russia and China are steadily moving forward with low-cost economic development projects to expand their global influence while being pushed more and more warmly into a strategic embrace by the squeeze the U.S. is putting on them.
Lesson #6: Aggression is complicated. If Washington invaded Iraq to get Iran, well, Washington transformed Iraq from Iran’s main enemy into, shall we say, a very friendly and submissive neighbor: dare we say “Iraq is Persian for Canada”? And now Washington is almost throwing Pakistan as well into Iran’s orbit. In the process, Washington also taught Iranians at least two lessons that will come back to haunt Americans. First, Iranian efforts to work with the Bush Administration were accepted briefly when desperately needed to construct a new Afghan regime, after which Bush immediately insulted Iran (remember “Axis of Evil”???). Second, tensions with Iran have greatly empowered Iran’s own militaristic, super-nationalistic “neo-cons.” Iranians have learned that hostility toward the U.S. pays a lot more than cooperation.
Lesson #7: War enriches the rich. This one is harder to contemplate; it's a real conspiracy theory and surely must impute more deviousness to certain factions than they deserve, but if some of those who supported the invasion of Iraq did so to blind the 99.9% to the accelerating shift of power and wealth into the hands of the 0.1%, they certainly achieved what they wanted. One one level, the shift of wealth to the uber-rich occurred directly through the enormous benefits handed to CEOs profiting from the war. On a second level, war tensions distracted Americans. Linking the levels together was an insidious dynamic of rising impoverishment of the 99%, facilitating the task of persuading some of them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of empire. That this in fact worked and did so on at least two crucial levels is pretty much beyond dispute; that it was planned from Day 1 is less clear. Nonetheless, now they own it all.
From those specific lessons about Iraq, broader lessons for U.S. relations with the whole Muslim world can be derived. In particular, it is essential for global stability, peace, and justice to focus on the four hot spots Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine. I spell out my goals (stability, peace, and justice) because these are absolutely not the goals of all the relevant actors; some benefit too much from war to tolerate the goals I enumerated. This distinction in goals of course lies at the heart of the problem.
Two broad lessons from the Iraq adventure exist: war for empire works at a certain level; it is enriching for certain individuals and addresses a few powerful factional concerns. On the other hand, it produces disastrous security consequences for both vanquished and victors. Unfortunately, Americans broadly seem blind to the parallels between the blood and treasure lost in Iraq and what a similar policy toward the rest of the Muslim world is likely to generate.
Washington has, in the absence of real competition from our dear old Soviet colleagues, lost its self-control; it just cannot resist going back to the global power buffet line for one more helping of the high cholesterol sweets of imperial manipulation and elite enrichment. Be it economic warfare against Iran, high collateral damage of innocents in Pakistan, bending down one more time to Likudnik demands for endless Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or the care and feeding of American billionaires with taxpayer funds, Washington has become a binge eater.
A different approach is quite feasible. While the U.S. faces many dangers in an increasingly complex world, a powerful enemy ready to pounce is not one of them. Thus, the U.S. not only needs a global policy of cooperation in the search of positive sum outcomes but now has the luxury of being able to afford such a policy. Changes in U.S. behavior will of course be required. Dieting means giving up some of that chocolate cake.
A positive-sum foreign policy means allowing others more freedom (e.g., control over their own oil resources) and accepting some standards that will be hard for certain friends to swallow (e.g., a transparent Mideast nuclear regime). But the empire now needs to go on a diet to avoid having a heart attack. Allowing the rich to gorge on foreign wars and domestic oppression of the middle class is a diet that will surely destroy American democracy and perhaps American power as well if not brought under control. This is why it is crucial that rather than sweeping the sad, embarrassing story of U.S. failure in Iraq under the rug we Americans face up to the lessons of that failure: if we do not, we will suffer much bigger failures in the near future.
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