I’m going to make a prediction: historians are not going to look kindly on the U.S. war in Iraq.
First, a brief digression.
Most major foreign policy writers in the U.S. decided to support the Iraq war. Most came to regret that decision, spending the next few years in print hemming and hawing and self-reflecting and criticizing the Bush administration’s incompetence. (As if Bush’s lack of brilliance should have come as a surprise–they must have missed the first nine episodes of “That’s My Bush!”)
Very few media big wigs admitted the obvious: they supported the Iraq war because they got caught up in a phenomenon called ‘war fever,’ seen in most conflicts throughout history, and as members of the media, obligingly went along with the state’s desire to invade Iraq. In other words, everyone was doing it.
But, in general, these media types are pretty vain people, and they think they’re pretty smart. Some of them are pretty smart, brilliant even. It would be an affront to their intellectual vanity to admit that they just got caught up in a particularly virulent mob mentality. That they’d been willing dupes. On the whole their reaction–rather than to take responsibility and admit the idea was obviously silly, undemocratic, and unjustified–has been to place the blame elsewhere. Paul Bremmer, George Bush, Ahmed Chalabi, Tommy Franks, George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld etc.
After the primary reason for the war turned out to be a hoax (WMD), and with it the debunking of the corollary reason for the war (fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them at home), they were stuck with that last powerful justification, bringing freedom to the Iraqi people.
It’s always a persuasive and powerful argument: making the world safe for democracy and civilization has historically been a component of most cases for war that the U.S. has made. The argument also resurfaces each election that Iraq has had. The pictures of the purple fingers, and the euphoria that many Iraqis feel on voting day–at least they’re getting something out of the shit show they’ve had to live through–are hard to argue against. They appeal to an emotional, gut response, confirming to the American public that see, we’re the good guys after all. The election on Sunday was no exception.
Now that Americans are no longer dying in Iraq–only Iraqis are dying in Iraq–those thinkers who supported the war then turned against the war are now slowly reclaiming their earlier positions. This admittedly weasel-like behavior is to be expected of columnists, I suppose, but I have to say that I have a lot more respect for the readable assholes like Christopher Hitchens and even a Richard Perle, who at least have had the courage to stand by their misguided ideas through the worst of it.
Rarely do foreign policy writers acknowledge their support of the war, or their complicity in promoting it. Nowadays, they don’t even have the guts to say they were right. What they do say–and I’ve seen it a bunch–is that history will be the judge, or some version of that line. Very vocal Iraq War supporter Thomas Friedman gives us an example of this in his column today, writing:
Some argue that nothing that happens in Iraq will ever justify the costs. Historians will sort that out.
Yes, some do argue that, and I am one of them. Let the historians sort that out, as they have sorted out other imperial and colonial wars, like the French in Algeria and Indochina, the British in Baghdad, the Belgians in the Congo, the Russians in Kabul, the Japanese in Nanking and, of course, the Americans in Vietnam, to name just a few.
But humor me for a second as I quote myself. Here’s what I wrote last week before the election.
Expect, too, a rash of commentary and columns from once-upon-a time war supporters who are now quietly taking the first tentative steps to reclaim their original positions. (Subtext: The war was um,er,uh, horrible and everything, but we were right after all…)
Let’s go back to Friedman’s column. He writes:
Former President George W. Bush’s gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right. It should have and could have been pursued with much better planning and execution. This war has been extraordinarily painful and costly. But democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing.
Clearly, I’m like the Minority Report of bad Iraq columns. I could poke a few holes in his argument–might there not have been a peaceful and less costly ways to bring democracy to the Middle East, perhaps, say, by putting pressure on our autocratic allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States before using the “long bomb” option on Iraq?–but I guess I’d just like to quote him one more time.
Personally, at this stage, I only care about one thing: that the outcome in Iraq be positive enough and forward-looking enough that those who have actually paid the price — in lost loved ones or injured bodies, in broken homes or broken lives, be they Iraqis or Americans or Brits — see Iraq evolve into something that will enable them to say that whatever the cost, it has given freedom and decent government to people who had none.
Like Friedman, I too hope that one day Iraq will be a positive and a peaceful place. But I am now going to take on the mantle of someone who has had friends and family and loved ones pay that price. I don’t do this very often. It’s an emotional case I’m about to make, not one based on a rational argument.
‘Whatever the cost.’I know the cost. It’s never going to be worth it. No need to wait for the historians to figure that one out.