What the Iraq War Did to and for the Middle East

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Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, it can be easy to lose sight of how much of the argument for it was idealistic. By that I don't mean that such arguments were correct or should have been convincing; obviously I think the reverse. Rather I mean to distinguish the casus belli that is now most often discussed -- the discredited and possibly manufactured warnings about Weapons of Mass Destruction -- from the vision expressed by the war's most serious-seeming advocates.


These were people for whom the WMD threat, or reminders about Saddam Hussein's [alleged] plot to murder the first President Bush, were useful ways to add urgency to what they viewed as the real, moral purposes in going to war. Depending on the advocate, these included: 
  • justified retribution for Saddam Hussein's brutality and atrocities against Kurds, Shia, and the Iraqi public in general; 
  • concern that the alternatives to war -- open-ended sanctions -- were mainly hurting the most vulnerable people in Iraq, including children who might starve or die from lack of medicine;
  • and, most sweeping of all, the potential of forced regime-change in Baghdad to set off a wave of liberalization and democratization that could free many other Arab and Islamic countries from tyranny and despotism. A wave of liberalization had swept through East Asia starting in the 1980s -- in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, elsewhere -- after the U.S. helped ease its former client Ferdinand Marcos out of office. Why not the Islamic world?
Many of that era's "liberal hawks" expressed one or more of these arguments. I associate the third -- the fact that the Arab/Islamic world deserves democracy, too -- closely with Paul Wolfowitz, a hawk though not in normal terms a liberal, after hearing him make this case during an interview in January 2002. Many other people I interviewed later that year had a much more fatalistic, wary sense of whether the United States could really midwife democracy via regime change.

We know how the WMD argument for the war stands up ten years later. What about the Wilsonian, moral case for democratizing the region as a whole? Fred Kaplan, of Slate and The Insurgents, examines that question today and says that it is another way in which the case for war was illusory and the decision to go to war was a huge mistake. For instance:
Ten years later, it's clear that the Iraq war cast "a very large shadow" indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity's natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.

Kaplan bases part of his analysis on a book I found extremely useful and have often recommended in this space. That is A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, which presents a history of the decaying Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that should have guided our decisions about that same area in the early 21st.

No one ever really "learns" from history, because choices never present themselves in exactly the same way, and because you can always choose similarities and differences to fit current needs. (As Ernest May and Richard Neustadt explained so well in Thinking in Time.) But it should have been easier to see the pitfalls of military action in Iraq, and we can't let this costly experience recede unexamined. Kaplan's piece is worth reading and thinking about.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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