Governments have this thing about not admitting error. In a perverse sense, this may be because honesty requires that they do nothing but. Faced with the prospect of admitting that the entire enterprise of the modern state has not done what it is supposed to have done (I’ll spare you a complete or even truncated list), they take the road of the pathological criminal: insisting that they did nothing wrong even though everyone in the courtroom — even in the world — knows otherwise.
At the same time, there are ways that governments concede that “mistakes were made.” One way is the pullout, such as is being discussed with regard to Iraq. Sectors of the Bush administration are hinting that it could come sooner rather than later, even as the neocons howl and wail that success is only a nuclear bomb away. The neocons, however, appear to have squandered their credibility and power. This bow to reality by the Bush administration is all to the good. You can’t rule a country, much less bring it freedom and democracy, from a foxhole. All you can do with safety is tunnel out.
The first spoonfuls of dirt are already in evidence. Maj. General Charles H. Swannack has said that he is ready to withdraw from Ramadi, a hotbed of resistance. The idea is to turn over the whole city to the Sunnis and stand around on the outskirts of town to make sure that all goes well. On the way out, he said, the US will not “tolerate attacks on coalition forces and people jumping for joy in the streets.” Yes, he really said that.
US officials can pout that the Iraqis are not ready for freedom, just as the Soviets complained that the irascible Muslims of its far-flung empire were not ready for enlightened communism. The bottom line is that nobody wants to be ruled by martial law administered by a foreign military occupation, no matter what ideological label it claims as its rationale. It didn’t work in ancient times and it doesn’t work now. Most people get it. Fat governments with too many WMDs never do.
Some predictions follow. The unworkability of the occupation and public pressure will force the US to leave Iraq at some point in the next year. The neocons will scream that the failure was due to doves in the Bush administration. Bush himself will go down in history as a dupe, or a tragic figure at best. Iraq will become decentralized politically, intolerant religiously, and continue to be violent, dangerous, and poor for many years. The ostensible head of the Iraqi state will receive the grudging backing of the US because there will be no choice. And the American people will forget about the place, just as they have forgotten about Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Libya, and all the other lucky beneficiaries of US bombs.
In all the talk of the calamity of this war, never forget the broader picture: what an incredible opportunity was squandered after the end of the Cold War. The US had emerged as the universally acknowledged ideological victor in that forty-year struggle. That the Cold War was not actually an ideological struggle so much as a classic standoff between two evil empires is irrelevant for understanding the implications of this fact: totalitarian communism collapsed while the free economic system of the market economy remained standing in total triumph. The world was ready for a new period of genuine liberalism, and looking to the US. On the verge of an amazing period of technological advance, we were perfectly situated to lead the way.
There had never been a time in US history when George Washington’s foreign policy made more sense. A beacon of liberty. Trade with all, belligerence toward none. Commercial engagement with everyone, political engagement with as few as possible. The hand of friendship. Good will. This was the prescription for peace and freedom. It was within our grasp. Our children might have grown up in a world without major political violence. A world of peace and plenty. It could have been.
But it was not to be, mainly because George W.’s father decided that he wanted to go down in the history books for doing something big and important. What else but war? The US was now the world’s only superpower and itching for some fight somewhere. It’s a bit like a playground filled with wimps and one boy with a black belt in karate who never absorbed the lesson in how and where to use his fighting skills. And then there was this oil-drilling dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, and Bush decided to intervene. Twelve years later, the US is still there, causing unrelenting havoc for those poor people.
Oh yes, there were many other wars in between: the ridiculously named “humanitarian wars” of Bill Clinton, in which US troops went to places where people were variously suffering, killed enemies, and left people suffering even more. Each intervention cost the US more than the last. Look through a list of countries where Marines have been deployed since the end of the Cold War and you will see a list of countries in which the US is hated and despised by the local population. No, folks, this isn’t an amazing coincidence.
This short history leaves out 9-11, of course, but after two years we are in a better position to assess that event realistically. It didn’t symbolize some amazing rise of a new totalitarianism in the form of Muslim terrorism. It didn’t signal the failure of American isolationism, as the warmongers absurdly claim. It didn’t portend the need for the US to become the largest and most militarized global government in the history of the world.
Instead, it was a monstrous act of vengeance for US policies in the Gulf region and the Middle East, and the whole world knew it. Americans themselves, apparently unaware that their government had been working to stir up as many enemies as possible for so many years, were the only people on the planet who were shocked.
No, “they” don’t hate “us” because we are good. Mostly “they” like Americans and our culture, our businesses, our land, our history. What “they” hate is the US government because it is imperial, ham-handed, violent, arrogant, hypocritical, and stupid. The Bush administration seems to have set out to confirm this impression in every conceivable way.
It is never too late for a new beginning. Let us learn from the failure of the war on Iraq. As the generals and would-be civilian dictators crawl through the tunnels on their way back to DC, and watch from this side of the ocean at what a mess becomes of Iraq, let them all do some serious thinking about the role of the US in the world. They claim they want to be a force for freedom. How can they do that? By minding their own business and staying home. As a rule, they should avoid bombing people. That’s a good start. As a second step, Washington’s Farewell Address should be required reading.
If this ever happens, US officials may — just may — have to tolerate some jumping for joy in the streets. And not just in Ramadi.