Why Iraq?

Let’s try to take the neoconservatives at their word. The invasion of Iraq was never about oil. And it was never about “finishing the job” Bush pere left undone following the first Gulf war. It was not even about establishing a base of military operations in this critical region which would allow America to begin to distance itself from its problematic alliance with the Saudis.

It was solely about replacing a murderous, autocratic regime with a democracy, which would then embolden democratic reformers throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Iraq was to be the first domino in the democratization of the region.

Let’s leave aside the fact that metaphor was always a little careless. Dominoes topple a bit more easily than governments, systems of government, and the social values that have enabled or created those systems. Fallen dominoes dispossess no one, threaten no stakeholders, and force no radical realignment of interdomino relations. And they leave far less collateral damage.

Also try to ignore, as the neocons themselves did, that democracy in much of the Islamic world is likely to yield popularly elected theocracy. I personally have no problem with this notion; but I can’t help imagining it would have troubled the neocons, had it occurred to them.

One must still wonder: why Iraq?

If the goal was really to establish a model democracy in the heart of an increasingly theocratic Islamic world, Iraq seemed a pretty poor choice. It had one advantage, a brutal dictator whose regime few would miss. But the disadvantages were always staggering. The ethnic and sectarian allegiances, which have produced the current civil war, were always stronger than any sense of national identity; and the resulting enmities meant that the protection of minority rights would be problematic in any fledgling majority-rules government.

Then there is the realpolitik question of why one would chose to eliminate the single most important regional deterrent to Iran. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a hostile Suni regime that had fought a long, brutal, American-supported war against Iran. The only thing that could possibly rise to take its place, especially in a one-man-one-vote democracy, would be a neophyte Shiite regime that would certainly become a natural ally, if not puppet, of the Iranians.

There was also this little fact, still unacknowledged in Washington: it is illegal for to make war on another sovereign nation for purpose of regime change. While the Bush administration has not had to answer for this breech of international law, either at home or internationally, its early reliance on the fallacious WMD propaganda campaign suggests that it did not predict such a taciturn reaction to the regime change rationale. Better to invoke the slightly less questionable doctrine of “preemption” than to acknowledge, up front, that American exceptionalism trumped established rules of international order. Once it became abundantly clear that his claims of WMD were a mix of fantasy and fabrication, however, President Bush had no difficulty justifying the war on the purely neoconservative grounds of regime change. He has been lucky to escape censure (or worse) on this issue.

Things were never going to be easy sledding in making Iraq the poster-child for Islamic democracy.

But there was an even better reason not to have invaded Iraq, judging strictly from the neocon perspective: America had already fought and won a legal, well-justified war in Afghanistan, a country far-better positioned to achieve dreams of democratic influence. The Taliban had been routed and the people of Afghanistan were enjoying a new spirit of optimism under its liberalized society and new democratic political institutions. People were quite literally dancing in the streets – to real music, which had been silenced under the Taliban regime.

We will never know how brilliantly or poorly Afghanistan would have served as the lead domino in the neocon game. America failed to eradicate the Taliban, failed to deliver development aid in the amounts promised, and diverted troops which might have helped to secure the problematic southern provinces — all to focus on Iraq. Any reasonable semblance of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan would have been cheap and easy, especially when compared against the invasion of Iraq. Now, Afghanistan is under siege by a resurgent Taliban and religious fundamentalism again dominates social behavior in Afghanistan’s cities. The appallingly corrupt Kharzai government has never been able to exert its authority much beyond Kabul. Opium production is at record levels. The people of the country are poor, hungry, and frustrated. Each day the situation gets worse.

Think of the opportunity we have squandered. A revitalized, democratic Afghanistan would have been a powerful influence on its immediate neighbor, and America’s crucial ally, Pakistan. As much as the U.S. bond with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. – Pakistani alliance is an incessant cause for embarrassment. Pakistan is in the thrall of Mullahs, and run by a military dictator who refuses to hold elections. Its northern tribal states are both uncontrolled by Islamabad and the main source of support for the newly revived Taliban.

When George W. Bush campaigned for president in 1999, he argued strenuously against U.S. involvement in “nation-building.” His neoconservative friends had other ideas; but credit his consistency: he has indeed built nothing in Afghanistan. Or in Iraq for that matter.

It is a shame that the neocons didn’t see the fertile opportunity for their project in Afghanistan, and that the Bush Administration didn’t care enough about this hardscrabble place to give it the help it needed to avoid collapse. Had his strategists been able to calm Mr. Bush’s hard-on for Iraq and focused on getting things right in Afghanistan, I could well imagine that neoconservative interventionism would now be celebrated as an effective, muscular model for remaking the world. Instead, it is just another example of playground dynamics, where the bullies usually turn out to be the stupid kids.

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