The Washington elite decision to invade Iraq occurred for reasons that thinking Americans will bitterly debate for much of the rest of this century. Like it or not, the influence of that decision will be heavy on the shoulders of every person alive on earth for the rest of that person’s life. The question now centers on the lessons we all learn.
Lesson #1: War does not create democracy. If Washington invaded Iraq to defend freedom, the invasion was a disaster. The behavior of the U.S. toward occupied Iraq, the behavior of U.S.forces in Iraq, and the behavior of Iraqi politicians during the occupation have all tarnished the reputation of that ever out-of-reach ideal known as “democracy.”
Lessson #2: The American way of war destroys societies rather than saving them. If Washington invaded Iraq to save the Arab people, its destruction of the most advanced middle class society in the Arab world makes the failure of that goal crystal clear.
Lesson #3: A flashy war somewhere else will trick the American people every time. If Washington invaded Iraq to keep Bush-Cheney in office, the plan worked brilliantly, rescuing an apparently doomed administration. Perhaps the worst president in American history was able to preside over what was, in moral terms, perhaps the most immoral decade in American history, step nimbly over the thousands of dead civilians, ignore the tattered remnants of U.S. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and announce with a grin that being president had been “fun.”
Lesson #4. Empires feast on war. If Washington invaded Iraq to build empire, the lesson to be derived from the perspective of the American people is quite different from the lesson that an empire-builder would derive. Despite being fought to a draw by “rag-tag extremists”—many of whom were in fact genuine nationalists and having its uniformed forces essentially kicked out, the empire-builders have much to savor: Iraq remains, sort of, in the U.S. orbit, with huge and dangerous U.S. mercenary forces evidently planning to remain. Then there’s that monster fortress embassy in the Green Zone. As for the ring of real fortresses, the U.S. military bases, just exactly what is happening to them? More significantly for empire-builders, the war facilitated the establishment of a larger ring of U.S. bases throughout the region, not just surrounding Iran but making clear that, for the moment, the U.S. is the winner of the Central Asian Great Game that Russia and Great Britain used to fight. Of course, the small matter of how to avoid a second embarrassing “victory”—in Afghanistan—remains to be worked out; some of our brilliant strategists are now suggesting the (to empire-builders) obvious solution: expand the failed Afghan adventure to Pakistan.
Lesson #5. Even winning a war can harm your security. OK, maybe the U.S. did not exactly “win” the Iraq war, but it certainly conquered the place and invented its current government. Yet who in the U.S. feels more secure? The war empowered bin Laden for years, multiplied anti-U.S. feeling worldwide, contributed greatly to a continuing U.S. economic mess, left the country profoundly divided, and left the U.S. embarrassingly irrelevant in the Arab world, as became obvious when the White House sat on the sidelines during the heady days of Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, Iran, which empire-builders and Likudniks so love to criticize, is manifestly more significant on the world stage than it was a decade ago. Much more seriously for real strategic thinkers, Russia and China are steadily moving forward with low-cost economic development projects to expand their global influence while being pushed more and more warmly into a strategic embrace by the squeeze the U.S. is putting on them.
Lesson #6. Aggression is complicated. If Washington invaded Iraq to get Iran, well, Washington transformed Iraq from Iran’s main enemy into, shall we say, a very friendly and submissive neighbor: dare we say “Iraq is Persian for Canada”? And now Washington is almost throwing Pakistan as well into Iran’s orbit. In the process, Washington also taught Iranians at least two lessons that will come back to haunt Americans. First, Iranian efforts to work with the Bush Administration were accepted briefly when desperately needed to construct a new Afghan regime, after which Bush immediately insulted Iran (remember “Axis of Evil”???). Second, tensions with Iran have greatly empowered Iran’s own militaristic, super-nationalistic “neo-cons.” Iranians have learned that hostility toward the U.S. pays a lot more than cooperation.
Lesson #7. War enriches the rich. This one is harder to contemplate; it's a real conspiracy theory and surely must impute more deviousness to certain factions than they deserve, but if some of those who supported the invasion of Iraq did so to blind the 99.9% to the accelerating shift of power and wealth into the hands of the 0.1%, they certainly achieved what they wanted. One one level, the shift of wealth to the uber-rich occurred directly through the enormous benefits handed to CEOs profitting from the war. On a second level, war tensions distracted Americans. Linking the levels together was an insidious dynamic of rising impoverishment of the 99%, facilitating the task of persuading some of them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of empire. That this in fact worked and did so on at least two crucial levels is pretty much beyond dispute; that it was planned from Day 1 is less clear. Nonetheless, now they own it all.
The American people (not the Occupiers; that courageous minority understands the need to defend democracy) are right: a self-satisfied if embarrassed grin followed by firm denial and a trip to the mall is the only way to deal with this mess. Face up to reality and we will all need psychiatrists.