Mr. Zhou Goes to Baghdad
According to a popular story, when Richard Nixon asked China’s then premier Zhou Enlai about his thoughts on the French Revolution, Zhou replied that it was “too soon to tell.” The story is meant to suggest that the Chinese are far better at taking the long view of history. Unfortunately, it’s all a misunderstanding—according to Nixon’s translator for the trip, Zhou was actually referring to France’s 1968 student uprisings. Yet the Zhou of legend has found some equally farsighted friends in the neoconservative camp. A Paul Wolfowitz essay, released today in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, uses Zhou’s phrase in its title, and opens with a warning that “it may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war.” Jeb Bush was similarly cautious in a recent tour of the Sunday talk shows:
You know, a lot of things in history change over time. I think people will respect the resolve that my brother showed, both in defending the country and the war in Iraq. But history will judge that in a more objective way than today. The war has wound down now and it's still way too early to judge what success it had in providing some degree of stability in the region.
Is this fair? Are we, as Bush implies, unable to judge the invasion’s legacy objectively because it is so recent? Is it “still way too early to judge” its impact on regional stability? Hardly. The conflict’s short-term impact on stability will have to be heavily weighted in any final assessment, regardless of whether this assessment is written today or in ten thousand years. And that impact is not in doubt. The war severely aggravated Iraq’s sectarian divisions, leading to a civil war in which tens of thousands died. Jihadists and money came from around the region; a new and especially brutal Al Qaeda affiliate sprang up. Iran, no longer troubled by the madman on its doorstep, accelerated its quest to become a regional player, worrying its southern neighbors enough that they asked the United States to attack.
The “too soon to tell” crowd leans on an odd model of historical causation. Wolfowitz draws a parallel with the Korean armistice, noting that even thirty years after its signing, few would have predicted the South’s rise into the upper echelons of the global economy or its successful democracy. Fair enough. Yet the United States didn’t go to war in Korea to foster prosperity or democracy, but to halt an aggressive Communist advance in a strategic region. That had been achieved within a year of the conflict’s beginning. The transition to democracy and prosperity happened many years later. A North Korean victory in 1950 probably would have prevented it. But that doesn’t mean American steadfastness caused it—that responsibility was always going to fall on the Southerners. Korean choices and Korean conditions over the coming decades launched the South’s rise.
Similarly, with every passing day the invasion of Iraq recedes farther into the past, and with it its causal significance for the present. Every new move Iraqi leaders make gives them a little more ownership over their nation’s fate. And the future of Iraq remains, as Charles Krauthammer wisely said, “indeterminate.” In the coming years, Iraq might become a stable democracy. It might fall back into conflict. It might become a dictatorship again. What is certain is that whatever happens, American actions in 2003 aren’t going to be the cause.
History has already weighed in on the significance of the invasion. The Bush-Wolfowitz bid to delay judgment merely shows they don’t like the answer.