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Phil-osophically Speaking

Swallowing Arsenic

Learning from the past is always a retrospective activity and since this month marks 10 years of U.S. military involvement in Iraq it is worth investigating how this encounter, beginning with a widely supported invasion, gestated into one of America’s most unpopular wars. 

The interesting thing about Iraq is that it did not start as an unpopular war like the War with Mexico in 1846. In that year, President James Polk, fired by the fever of Manifest Destiny, ushered the U.S. into a war over a mere border dispute about the Rio Grande being the dividing line between the recently annexed Texas and Mexico. Northern states saw it as a land power grab for the slaveholding South who found themselves growing more and more isolated as America expanded westward.  Ulysses S. Grant, a young officer in the war, wrote that the American Civil War was the price the United States paid for the Mexican War. It was, said another, like swallowing arsenic.

The Vietnam War began rather indifferently for most Americans. In his wistful rendezvous with the “Land of Oz,” better known as the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson made a pit stop to the jungles of Vietnam. Claiming that in the Gulf of Tonkin the U.S. was fired upon by North Vietnam, Johnson’s fateful decision had engaged an already involved American military into a major land war in Southeast Asia resulting in America’s first and only defeat. Johnson’s object was not land acquisition, it was containment. The war that began almost matter of factly for most Americans would trigger social upheaval, condemnation and nationwide protests.

The war with Iraq was an entirely different species. America was still shell-shocked by the shattering events of 9-11.  Islamic radicalism was on the march; Hussein’s military continually fired on U.S. and allied aircraft that were protecting Iraqi opposition forces in northern and southern Iraq. Worst of all, alarming reports of Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction became a quotidian news event. This was a regime that had already tried to build a nuclear reactor before Israel did the world a favor and blew it to smithereens; a potentate that had used chemical weapons against his own people, poison gas against Iran, invaded Kuwait and gave sanctuary to some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. 

The WMD reports were believed not only by American intelligence, but also by Great Britain, France and even some of Saddam’s generals.  The fact that U.N. weapon inspectors found none was attributed to the believable notion that Iraq was a big country with a plentitude of hiding places. When American, British and a “coalition of the willing” forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 some 72 percent of the American public had favored military action. I was among them for the sole reason that I did not believe we could contain an Iraqi regime with nuclear weapons in the same way we did the Soviet Union. This was, in one sense, counterintuitive from my perspective, since John Quincy Adam’s dictum had long ago made an indelible impression upon me and which I paraphrase here: That we are friends of liberty everywhere but custodians only of our own. That American foreign policy is not about slaying monsters abroad; that we have no argument with any regimes, no matter how odious, as long as they don’t seek to export it.

Under those auspices, the U.S. and its allies were justified in coming to the defense of Kuwait and re-establishing its sovereignty during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. What ultimately effectuated my thinking in our second encounter with Hussein was that we were virtually powerless to do anything about the Soviet Union obtaining nuclear weapons in the first years after WWII. That’s clearly not true of Iraq nor, for that matter, Iran today. With both nations comfortably nestled into a cauldron rich with oil and inflamed by ancient hatreds, it would be a precarious proposition to rely on the containment strategies of the Cold War. So the invasion came and the regime was quickly vanquished. 

Few, however, saw the insurgency. Iraq was a welter of religious radicalism and divergent sects. Hundreds of weapon caches were turned against unsuspecting U.S. troops in widespread guerrilla warfare. The Bush Administration clearly had not fully comprehended the country we had just conquered. Casualties mounted. No WMDs were found. Bumper stickers became accusatory: Bush lied; people died. Taking out a strongman like Saddam Hussein was important but hardly sufficient in reconstituting the political order. Before we realized what was happening, the country whose institutions had been ruined by the procrusteanization of its former leader was soon engulfed in a bloody sectarian war that threatened to establish al Qaeda’s position in the country. 

A very unpopular counterinsurgency ordered by Bush and courageously supported by Senator John McCain almost implausibly succeeded when all seemed lost. We had caught our second wind, but there was not enough oxygen in our worn out lungs to break the tape at the finish line. President Obama was much more interested in Afghanistan and our gains in Iraq, never an ironclad guarantee to begin with, were flittered away. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has allied with his wounded country to Iran. He is warring with the Sunnis. Democracy has not flowered in the land of the dead. That is perhaps the most painful mistake of all. There existed a deep vein of optimism among some influential policy makers that people of oppressed lands like Iraq thirsted for freedom —- that the liberties we enjoy and cherish here in America were also desired in these far away strange lands.

It was a kind of hopefulness that seems almost childishly naïve now; a kind of Wilsonian evangelism that has a storybook quality but with little bearing on reality. If this led to a kind of ultranationalist patriotism to make the world safe for democracy in the context of the horrors of 9-11 we could be forgiven. But we should not, however, be forgiven for failing to complete what we set out to do: create a stable and secure Iraq.  Yes, things are better without Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis have freedom of speech, religion and political activity. But it is not enough to encourage optimism for the shadow of al-Qaeda and radicalism looms large and ominous. If in the gloom of dusk Minerva’s owl has spread her wings then we should seek to salvage from the quasi wreck the good things that we can. I can live with that. But what our nation says, if it can say anything worthwhile at all, to our brave and honorable soldiers who sacrificed life and limb for such an uncertain and unsatisfactory outcome is what I find so troubling and heartbreaking.