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Learning from the War

Joe Carter caught my attention again today with his post This I No Longer Believe: 5 Lessons Learned from the Iraq War. Now he’s responding to this post by Rod Dreher, but I actually found his list more interesting.

I’m not going to make my own list, because I don’t think I’ve learned five things from the Iraq war. I’m not usually terribly prescient, and I have a long line of bad calls on elections to prove it, but I thought this war was going to be a failure from the start. The one thing I have definitely learned is that the American voters in general, and the leadership in particular do not seem to be able to think in terms of strategy. We seem to manage one step at a time, with two at the outside. “Let’s withdraw from Iraq so American soldiers will quit dying.” That’s one step. “What do we do about the genocide that will result?” That’s two steps. A third might be to ask whether there will come a time we can withdraw without destabilization, and if so when that will be, and how much it will cost. We can continue on from there to ask what other things we might do with the same resources to change the future.

I think in general both sets of lessons learned don’t look far enough into the context of each war and why people might have supported or opposed them. I know that many people expected the war in Iraq to be short and easy, and there was no reason to expect that. In fact this is one area where I personally give politicians little slack. I think anyone should have known that establishing a stable and democratic government in Iraq such that we could withdraw was going to be massively difficult.

A couple of days ago I made a somewhat intemperate remark about the Lybian government with reference to the Lybia 6. Despite calling my remark intemperate, and despite the fact that I might well not have said it, I’m not apologizing for it, because it does reflect what I think in an unedited way. Yet the Iraq war has involved similarly stupid activities.

I would suggest Guantanamo as a good combination of the immoral and the strategically stupid. Leaving aside the immoral, let me look at the strategically stupid part. Is it likely that the additional information gained by the controversial actions helped against terrorism enough to justify the political fallout, both domestic and foreign? I doubt it. There is a tendency amongst some people to think it’s patriotic to say “the hell with everyone else” and go it alone. I won’t debate “patriotic,” but that attitude is definitely dumb. We do need international cooperation to fight terrorism. In addition, the domestic political viability of a policy is also one of the considerations for whether a policy is strategically viable. In other words, the political support has to last until the policy is completed.

But I wanted to respond to one particular point Carter said he learned:

3. I no longer believe that Arab nations are capable of sustaining liberal democracies. The empirical evidence for this belief is overwhelming: Arab culture is currently unable to sustain democratic forms of government. Some people will decry this belief as racist or xenophobic. But it is simply being realistic. I used to think that Samuel Huntington was an intelligent crank; now I think he’s prophetic. As he once noted, the Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous. Thinking that freedom could take root in the blood-soaked soil of Arab culture was a naive assumption. Iraq has disabused me of such notions.

It simply amazes me that anyone thought that they were capable of doing so, or that if they were, such a democracy could be imposed from outside. Iraq is an especially tricky case. We try to think of all the people of Iraq as “Iraqis” in the sense that we think of Americans as Americans. But the border lines that create Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, and Jordan, amongst many others, are the product of the activities of western powers. We start with the notion of having the majority rule, or something close to that. Well, for Sunnis, that means Shi’ite rule in Iraq. They are, understandably, not crazy about it. And that’s only the first of many, many problems.

We have somehow gotten the idea that an American style democracy is the best thing for everyone, and that, if they are given the opportunity, everybody will embrace it. It’s a highly arrogant position for us to take. Might it not be better to suggest that a country’s government needs to arise out of its own history and culture? And perhaps we should extend that to the idea that a “country” should arise out of its own history and culture.

A similar oddity occurred with the Palestinian election. We wanted a democratic election amongst the Palestinians. But then they went and elected the wrong people! All from our point of view, of course. So we cut off funding because now the Palestinian government was run by terrorists. I would suggest that we go back to the first step and ask whether it should be up to us to tell the Palestinian government that it must be democratic. Maybe we should only specify our requirements of them in terms of foreign policy goals, not their governmental forms.

If we, as a country, could learn something from this war, I would hope it would be this. Be determined in defending ourselves, but lose the arrogance about telling other people how to run their countries. We don’t have enough troops available to pay for our arrogance.

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One Comment

  1. h/t to Joe but Henry, I thank you for your perspective. I also found your comments on the ESV interesting. Keep up the great work!

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