I have been living in the eastern United States this fall, at a time when the botched invasion of Iraq dominates the public discourse. I am based in a (mostly liberal) university, where defenders of the war-makers — George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, et al — run thinly along the ground. Most of my friends and colleagues — as well as the occasional stranger I meet — are, naturally, on the side of the angels, that is, among those who now vigorously advocate the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
These critics of current American policy are of two kinds. The first are the hard-core leftists, who see the invasion of Iraq as entirely consistent with the status of the US as the imperial power of the age. They trace a long, straight line from the annexation of the Philippines in the late 19th century down to Operation Shock and Awe, with stops along the way in such far-flung places as Guatemala, Chile, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. The second group of critics are the wishy-washy liberals, who believe that American foreign policy has been based for the most part on noble intentions, with the occasional goof-up, this caused not by malice aforethought but rather by ignorance or incompetence. In this latter category the liberals would place the adventures in Vietnam and, now, in Iraq.
The problem with the leftist view is that some American military interventions in the past have been disinterested. A battle they usually pass over is World War II, in which humanity was saved from Hitler and the Nazis in good part by the Americans (aided, of course, by Britain and the Soviet Union). Then there was the Suez Canal episode in 1956, where the British and French armies were forced to withdraw from their former colonies only by a string of strong words issued by the American president, Dwight Eisenhower. More recently, the Americans have intervened to stop internecine warfare in the Balkans, with no other intention than to save human lives.
The problem with the liberal view is that it is hypocritical. Ninety-nine out of a hundred senators backed the invasion of Iraq. The exception was an antediluvian eccentric from Utah, named Robert Byrd. All other Democrats supported the war. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were as gung-ho as Bush and Rumsfeld. Notably, in this bipartisan support for the invasion, Democratic intellectuals participated as energetically as Democratic politicians. The liberal media backed the adventure with gusto — one should read, again, the cheerleading columns, urging the troops on, by Peter Beinart in the New Republic and (especially) by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. From his pulpit in the “paper of record”, Friedman banged on about the many reasons — the stated reason, the moral reason, the political reason, the right reason — justifying the invasion of Iraq.
His support to the neoconservatives was invaluable, for he was known to usually vote for the other side. Now, with blood being spilled on all sides, Beinart says that the invasion was right, but the post-invasion management incompetent — the line taken also by most Democratic senators and Congressmen. As for Friedman, he chooses to write about other topics such as global warming or the economic development of China.
The leftists might not want to acknowledge this, but the fact is that the war in Afghanistan was a just war. Osama bin Laden and al Qaida were given hospitality and encouragement by the ruling taliban regime. In effect, it was under the auspices of the government of Afghanistan that the destruction of the World Trade Center was planned and directed. Thus, the American initiative against the taliban is properly viewed as a counter-attack rather than an invasion.
Some liberals might not want to acknowledge this, but the truth is that the war in Iraq cannot be described as other than imperialist. Saddam Hussein was a brute, but he did not support al Qaida, and he had no intention of attacking America. Whether he was deposed and his country taken over because the Americans wished to promote democracy or protect Israel or gain access to cheap oil is a secondary question. The primary fact is that they had no business getting into this business in the first place.
Now that the invasion has gone so horribly wrong, the liberal outrage is manifest. But when it was being planned, the liberals acquiesced, either silently or (as in the case of Beinart and Friedman) loudly. The argument that the reconstruction of Iraq was incompetently executed — an argument that is all over the American press nowadays — simply won’t wash. For while Saddam Hussein might be no Ho Chi Minh, it should have been clear that most Iraqis would still prefer being brutalized by him to being ‘liberated’ by a group of white-skinned, English-speaking Christians from a million miles away. How could the liberals, remembering Vietnam, forget the force and appeal of indigenous nationalism' That they could forget shows only that American liberals can be as insular and ignorant as any red-necked Republican from Texas, likewise convinced that the rest of the world is waiting to be delivered into the American way of life by young, smiling Americans in uniform.
The excuse of ignorance cannot, however, be permitted to the British prime minister, who is a man of uncommon intelligence with a sophisticated understanding of history. Besides, many members of his own party, and most voices in the British media, had warned Tony Blair at the outset about the dangers of siding with the Americans. But side with them he did, and in tones as ringing, and as unprepared to admit any doubt, as those of the warmongers in Washington.
Where the liberals were right, and the leftists dead wrong, was in understanding that Islamic fundamentalism poses a real threat to the democratic way of life. The invasion of Afghanistan was merely the first step in stemming the tide of fundamentalism. The single-minded, dedicated, long-term reconstruction of that country should have been the next step. Instead, the attention was diverted to Iraq, the shift in focus called for by Republicans in America, aided along by their presumed political opponents, the Democrats, and by their pet poodle, Tony Blair.
The war in Iraq, it was claimed, would quell the threat posed to the world by Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, it has only served to recruit many more people into the fundamentalist cause. The American adventure in Vietnam grievously damaged that country and caused a great many deaths, some American, the others, Vietnamese. But the American adventure in Iraq has made life more difficult and dangerous for all of us. Many Americans and Iraqis will die and are dying because of the invasion, but people of other nationalities are and will die because of the invasion as well. The train bombings in London and Mumbai presage the times to come.
Thousands of innocent human beings, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will perish before the monster is finally laid to rest. How many of these deaths should we lay at the door of the Bushies, how many at the door of the so-called ‘liberal hawks’, and how many at the door of the Labour leadership in Great Britain' Perhaps the blame should be divided equally between the three parties: the Republicans, because they started it; the Democrats, who should have known better than to support them; and the British prime minister, who should have known best of all.