I was rather astonished in 2002-3 when so many distinguished members of my generation came out in favor of the Iraq War. It wasn't simply neocons like William Kristol who plumped for it, but liberals like the Canadian Michael Ignatieff (whom I met when I was about four years old) and New Yorker writer George Packer. The enterprise struck me as extremely dubious from the beginning even though I did not realize how little real glue held Iraq together. Once serious trouble started in the middle of 2003 I could see that we were not going to be able to achieve our objective of a stable and friendly Iraq, and that was a major theme of these posts from late 2004 when I began them until the Obama administration took power. I was at times too pessimistic about the surge, which did manage to quiet things down after a year of heavier American casualties, but that did alter the fundamental calculus of the situation. Now that an Al Queda affiliate has at least temporarily seized Fallujah, which Americans fought so hard to secure, it is just as well to review it.
The question we faced in Iraq was the same question the United States faced in Vietnam, the French faced in Algeria and the Israelis face in the West Bank. Can an occupying power, with the help in some cases at least of local auxiliaries, put down an insurgency and maintain order? The answer, historically, is yes--but only as long as the occupying power is willing to remain in force. The French Army argued for years that they had defeated the Algerian insurgency before de Gaulle decided to withdraw around 1960, and although they only did so by putting a large portion of the Algerian population into concentration camps, their claim was true as far as it went. The United States never had any real trouble holding onto the major population centers of South Vietnam except during the Tet offensive, and even then they regained control within a few weeks. The Israelis have learned how to keep the West Bank relatively quiet. But the problem, of course, is that such success lasts only as long as the occupying power is willing to stay. The Israelis do seem willing to remain in the West Bank more or less forever, but the other powers were not. The United States could not possibly have stayed in Iraq indefinitely and would have been mistaken to do so. The war failed in its objective because it was not based upon the political realities of the situation.
The real significance of the war in Iraq, we can now see, was to unleash the violent Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that now seems likely to set off another thirty years war in the Middle East, with disastrous consequences. I do not know if future historians will conclude that our adventure was mainly responsible for that conflict, and I am inclined to think that it was not. Its roots go back at least to the Iranian revolution in 1979. By going into Iraq and dismantling the Ba'athist regime, the US created a Shi'ite state that naturally became an ally both of Iran and of the Assad government in Syria. We also created an effectively independent Kurdistan, but we could not satisfy the Sunnis and the Shi'ites inside Iraq at once. The Maliki government has shown no talent or inclination for conciliating the Sunnis, and now, helped by the war across the border in Syria, Al Queda has taken root in Anbar province again. I do not know if they will be able to hold Fallujah, but they will remain a source of trouble for years, and the civil war in Iraq has been re-ignited again.
Long-delayed historical change often occurs with shocking suddenness. For the whole of my life, the government of the United States has undertaken to use military power to control events around the world. By the time I was 25, in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, I had concluded that this was a miostake and I thought my countrymen had done the same, but I was wrong. In 1974-5 President Ford and Henry Kissinger eagerly involved us in the Angolan civil war--a conflict between rival Marxist revolutionary movements--in order to show that Vietnam had not made us gunshy. Reagan intervened rather tentatively in Central America and the Middle East, held back in large measure by cautious military leadership, and Bush I fought the Gulf War successfully. Then my own generation took the fall of the Soviet Union as evidence that nothing now stood in our way. The Afghan and Iraq wars resulted. Now neither one of them seems likely to accomplish very much. Meanwhile, George W. Bush also destroyed the economic base of the federal government. More crucially, a new generation has come to power.
Gen X generally distrusts institutions, including the federal government, It has suddenly become clear that the younger leadership of the Republican Party is not very interested in the United States' role in the world. Among Democrats there is a significant faction eager to intervene for humanitarian reasons, but they too seem to be losing ground. Suddenly, as the New York Times pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the United States has no way of stopping the religious war in the Middle East, fueled by Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. More than twenty years later it is clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not destined to lead to US hegemony. It was the beginning of a general decline or collapse of political authority in large parts of the world--a frightening yet totally unanticipated development, and one which we have no idea what to do about.
Newspapers are now full of stories of American veterans, especially Marines, viewing the developments in Iraq incredulously. Some of them are bitter, but almost none of them seems to believe that we should send troops back, and no one, of course, is asking us too. Robert Gates in my opinion has also done the nation a disservice in his new memoir by blaming President Obama for not doing enough in Afghanistan, when the President's mistake was probably to do as much as he did. The President evidently doubted whether the Afghanistan surge would work, but he lacked the courage to follow his instincts and, as usual, took a political middle course. That protected his re-election, but it couldn't prop up the Karzai government that effectively.
During the 22 years I spent at the Naval War College there was a great deal of talk about how the Defense Department had replaced the State Department as the main arm of our foreign relations. That is now leaving us without a foreign policy, since the Defense Department can no longer deploy resources to any trouble spot. I still think the withdrawal of American military power is good for America, and ultimately, good for the world. The United States will suffer for decades because of the money, energy, lives and national unity that were squandered in Iraq at a critical moment in our history. But the loss the our ability, as leader of the western world, to shape the future, is nothing to celebrate. We seem to have lost the power not only to impose our will, but also to inspire by example.