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.
- 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?
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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