War and Naivete


A reader argues:

"Losing Faith" highlighted the type of naivete that your otherwise legitimate criticisms of Bush's war-management far too often enable. Your correspondent writes:

"After more than 3 years, we've completely failed to turn Iraq into anything remotely resembling a stable, prosperous, liberal democracy. I was never expecting Iraq to become New Zealand, but was at least hoping for Morocco ... Our presence in Iraq is simply not capable of thoroughly changing the dynamic. We're now just one actor in a stew of nefarious factions."

The naivete evidenced here is simply astonishing. Your correspondent's original understanding of the ambitions and abilities of the United States was nothing short of Messianic; he'd have been scrambling for the exits if the casualties and chaos were even half as bad as they are now.

"We're just one actor in a stew of nefarious factions" - this is said in a tone of hurt surprise. I can't help myself wondering if the writer belongs to a kind of geopolitical cargo cult, expecting the US to operate as a deus ex machina every time it chooses to involve itself in world conflict. Sure things could have been done differently, and they could have been done better, and maybe the decision to enter Iraq shouldn't have been made at all. But when you expect to change a brutal dictatorship that depended for its survival on the exploitation of tribal and religious rivalries into a state like Morocco in three years, disappointment is inevitable.

I'm not suggesting you quit publicizing your criticisms of the execution of the war, because they're an important part of the debate. But I'm afraid far too many of your readers have traded the hubristic illusion that we'd "fix" the Middle East in a few months for the equally dangerous misapprehension that even incremental, blundering progress is impossible.

I haven't opined on some of the views I've been airing these past few days because I think they're worth airing in their own right. But my own position is more in line with this reader's than previous emails. I'm angry at the unnecessary bungling of the war in Iraq, but the following caveats must be made:

a) there was no obvious, easy alternative that would have solved all our problems. A rapidly failing state in Iraq, hemmed in by sanctions and inherited by Saddam's psychopathic sons was not a recipe for success either;

b) no policy there can be judged in three years; and

c) the larger Muslim civil war is greater and more intractable than any single U.S. or Israeli intervention, and will keep us perilously insecure for much of my lifetime. Our task is indeed to find a way for "incremental, blundering progress."

The questions now are, therefore: how do we make the best of the deteriorating situation in Iraq? How do we exploit divisions in the wider Muslim world to empower the moderates and democrats? How at the same time do we protect our own populations from Islamist terror? It may be that these three things cannot be done simultaneouly. But the deeper point is that these questions are not merely matters of sufficient will but of sufficient skill. I wish this point were more thoroughly understood. Questioning tactics is not the same as giving up. Not questioning tactics, when the evidence suggests they are deeply flawed, is the deepest sign of unseriousness.

(Photo of Beirut after an Israeli barrage by Barak Kara/Getty.)