Andrew Bacevich is one of the clearest and deepest voices against the war machine the United States has become. A retired Army colonel with a Ph.D. from Princeton whose son was killed in the Iraq war which he opposed, he’s now a professor of international relations at Boston University.
This combination of experience and education positions him perfectly to observe and reflect on the tenth anniversary of the second Bush war against Iraq. Training and inclination give a historical tint to his perspective, and I highly recommend the WaPo article.
Next year marks the centennial of the conflict once known as the Great War. Germany lost that war. Whether France and Britain can be said to have won in any meaningful sense is another matter. Besides planting the seeds for an even more horrific bloodletting just two decades later, the fighting of 1914-1918 served chiefly to provide expansion-minded British politicians with a pretext for carving up the Ottoman Empire. It proved a fateful move.
What London wanted from this new Middle East that it nonchalantly cut and pasted was profit and submission; what it got was resentment and resistance, yielding a host of intractable problems that in due time it bequeathed to Washington. In effect, victory in 1918 expanded Britain’s imperial domain only to accelerate its demise, with the United States naively assuming the mantle of imperial responsibility (euphemistically termed “leadership”). Thank you, Perfidious Albion.
Many another storied triumph has contained its own poison pill. More recent examples include the Six Day War, which saddled Israel with a large, restive minority that it can neither pacify nor assimilate; the ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, giving rise to the Taliban; and Operation Desert Storm, after which the garrisoning of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia helped light the long fuse that would eventually detonate on Sept. 11, 2001.
Think you’ve won? Wait until all the returns are in.
McCain recently tried to use his beloved Surge in Iraq to convict Hagel of incompetence as a potential SecDef, though of course the real issue was that Hagel didn’t endorse McCain in 2008. Bacevich compares the surge to Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. It was indeed a great victory on the battlefield, but as the returns filtered in Gibbon’s words were recalled.
Such is the empire of Fortune (if we may still disguise our ignorance under that popular name), that it is almost equally difficult to foresee the events of war or to explain their various consequences. A bloody and complete victory has sometimes yielded no more than possession of the field; and the loss of ten thousand men has sometimes been sufficient to destroy, in a single day, the work of ages.
Jackson’s signature victory, of couse, took place two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812. And McCain’s surge made no difference in the outcome of the war, though of course it killed more Americans. It also caused Americans to kill more Iraqis, and to me it appears that the most underplayed aspect of the story in accounts I’ve been reading is the animosity provoked throughout the Middle East by the three Bush wars, two on Iraq and one on Afghanistan. Bacevich speculates that the entire second war on Iraq will be seen by historians as not very important, like the War of 1812, except that the War of 1812 left us with a national anthem. Even the importance of the American empire is fading in comparison to the rising literacy and production and general capabilities of the rest of the world.
In what has become one of the most momentous stories of the 21st century, the inhabitants of the Islamic world are asserting the prerogative of determining their own destinies. Intent on doing things their way, they are increasingly intolerant of foreign interference. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington sought to revalidate an altogether different prerogative, one pioneered by Britain: an entitlement to meddle.
Britain never learned its lesson; and hubris attracts Nemesis, in this case history, the great teacher. What about the US, will we learn from Britain’s example? Not yet. As Bacevich puts it, “Sure, American troops captured Baghdad and overthrew Saddam Hussein. So what?”
Back in 1947, the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine kicked off Washington’s effort to put its imprint on the Greater Middle East, while affirming that Britain’s exit from the region had begun. U.S. power was going to steer events in directions favorable to U.S. interests. That effort now seems likely to have run its course. The United States finds itself today pretty much where the British were back in the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve bitten off more than we can chew. The only problem is that there’s no readily available sucker to whom we can hand off the mess we’ve managed to create.
Still, we have made some progress: compare McCain’s fate with Jackson’s.