The Iraqi people have only one question about the new government in Iraq: is it, and to what degree, merely a puppet for the US? Meanwhile, the new government has one message for the Iraqi people: it is not a tool of the US and, in fact, it hates the occupation. The US has one major worry about the new government in Iraq: it won’t achieve legitimacy so long as it is seen as favored by the US.
Whatever else you want to call this, don’t call it a success. Of course, the Bush administration will forever put its spin on events (freedom = occupation; democracy = martial law; liberation = war), but the prevailing attitudes in Iraq and around the world render a more decisive verdict of decisive failure.
If this war were a dictionary entry it would read:
Iraq War, 2003-2004: An ill-fated military conflict launched by the Bush administration and justified by the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The US and allies overthrew the Iraqi government, instituted martial law, and attempted to install a puppet state. Oppressive rule, the killing of some 10,000 civilians, and the torture of prisoners provoked a guerilla backlash that drove the US out of the country as US credibility evaporated and casualties became intolerably high.
In the running chronicle of wins and losses in the history of US warfare, this one will have to count as a loss. But a loss also means an end to the killing and maiming of American soldiers, for which we should be grateful, and an end to the ever-greater corruptions that come from the attempt to impose the will of a superpower on others around the world.
There are other developments:
The Iraqi Syndrome. After the disaster of Vietnam, Americans were said to be afflicted by what Nixon called the Vietnam Syndrome, which was Americans’ reluctance to go to war. After the Gulf War in 1991, the first President Bush said: “By God we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” and yet he lost the election. His successor found it ever more difficult to go to war.
Where are we today? The great reluctance Americans had toward going to war — even after 9-11 whipped up a war frenzy — meant that the president finally had to be reduced to preposterous claims that Saddam Hussein was planning to use nuclear weapons against the US, so the US had to go and disarm him. That all these claims turn out to be a hoax is bad for US warmongers.
The Iraqi Syndrome can now replace the Vietnam Syndrome. It means: don’t believe what the government says about other governments it wants to overthrow. It means: wars are unbearably costly in lost prosperity and lives. It also means: when your government goes to war in the name of your country, it risks humiliating and besmirching the name and heritage of your country. This supposed syndrome is nothing other than looking at the costs of war realistically and rationally, and concluding it is not worth it.
After the Cold War, the US government clamored desperately for another excuse to keep the warfare state fat and happy. It wanted a new Communism and thought it had it in Islamic extremism with the War on Terror as its method for keeping the largess flowing and the parasites employed. The Iraq War represents a major setback in this effort. If you add the calamity of the Afghan war to the mix, you have a decisive case against keeping the Cold War state alive.
The Central Plan Failed. The government is never more arrogant than in the war-planning stage. It presumes all knowledge of time and place. It claims that it can anticipate every action and every reaction. It believes that nothing is more powerful than power itself, and so bombs dropped from the air can make any people anywhere bend to the wishes of the superstate. A government that believes in its own foreign policy omniscience and omnipotence is a dangerous government, not just to foreign peoples but also to its citizens.
In fact, it failed from the outset, though the US has just been slow to deal with the reality. Not only is the plan not working; the reality is conforming in ways that are opposite of US intentions. When the US demands that people turn in weapons, people begin to accumulate them, fearing an attack. When the US favors a certain leader to take over the country, the whole of Iraq unites on a single principle: anyone but the person the US wants. The US decides to place a priority in a particular area of production or security and it serves as a signal for everyone to ignore or oppose it. Today’s US choices for political office become tomorrow’s “most wanted” list for guerillas.
Perhaps this will impose a modicum of humility on the superpower. If so, this can only help Americans, who have had just about enough of US central planning at home. In fact, the failures in Iraq were foreshadowed in many ways here. Attempts to collect weapons from Americans caused buying sprees in the 1990s. The attempt to censor draws public attention to the information. Nobody wants the Medicare discount cards, supplied at the cost of hundreds of billions in taxes. One can only feel pity and sadness for poor Iraq. But all will benefit if the Iraq failure ends up deterring the US from future acts of extreme arrogance.
Ideas Beat Power. The great myth that all public officials carry around in their heads is that the world will conform to any dictate so long as it is backed by the threat of force. Governments have always believed this because force and the threat of force are their only tools. If force does not work, government does not work.
Iraq has shown the world that power has limits. No government can rule by force of arms alone. No policy can be imposed on a country whose citizens are opposed to the policy. In the end, governments are nothing but small, well-armed minorities attempting to impose its will on everyone else. They can be held at bay and even overthrown if the people resist.
In Iraq, the result is the humiliating defeat of the largest, richest, most well-armed state in the history of the world. Small guns beat big guns. An ideology of national independence beat an ideology of national domination. The desire to be free trumped the demand to conform to the dictate of the imperial power. There is something incredibly inspiring about this.
Is it a real-life case of David and Goliath, a story that has given hope to the oppressed for two millennia? In the story from I Samuel 17, the key feature of Goliath was not his smarts but his size and armor (helmet of brass, coat of mail, brass on his legs and chest, a huge spear with an iron tip). David alone refused to be intimidated. He eschewed all the trappings of armor and chose instead five smooth stones. He aimed for Goliath’s forehead, the one unarmed spot.
There Is Hope for Freedom. The same government that tried to control Iraq is at war against the liberty, property, and privacy of Americans. When the US was founded, people could live their lives and earn their money and protect themselves without ever having any contact with this thing called the federal government. So it was for generations. But today, this government is inescapably huge, managing as much of our lives and taking as much of our property as it can get away with.
Leviathan can be beaten. This is an inspiring message in our time. We mourn for the dead on all sides, who so needlessly had a precious gift stolen from them by the state. But a military defeat translates into a victory for the ideas of Jefferson and the party of life and liberty, here and around the world. As to Iraq, let it have its freedom and make of it what it will. Let Americans have theirs too.