America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

January-February 2015

I supported the Iraq War. I mention this whenever publicly discussing the issue. I was not in favor of exporting democracy. Anyone who knows my work knows that I have seen the benefits of enlightened dictatorship in many instances, and still do. But Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a dictatorship: it constituted a suffocating totalitarianism somewhere south of Stalin and north of the Assads in Syria. I knew it intimately from several reporting trips to Iraq in the 1980s, and thus I was a journalist who had gotten too close to his story. In short, I became committed. Yet, no matter how Iraq turns out in the future, even if there is a sharp improvement and the Islamic State is defeated, the price America paid there will still have been far too steep. The war as it turned out—not how it might have turned out according to some counterfactual—was a disaster.

But that is where my certainty ends. The what ifs, because there are so many, are indeed tantalizing, even as the sheer amount of mistakes in prosecuting the war leads one inexorably to the conclusion that the decision to invade in the first place was just that, another mistake. But grand themes, because they are teased out of a plethora of intricate little details, must remain an interpretation, not a fate. Maybe the Iraq invasion, precisely because of the many mistakes involved with it, was not even given a chance to succeed. I desperately want to believe this, given my previous support of the war, but at the end of a sleepless night I can’t. I sense instead that the legions of mistakes were inherent in the hubris of the conception.

Here is a counterfactual: Bush, in the summer of 2002, decides not to invade Iraq. Saddam’s regime soldiers on. The sanctions against him are gradually lifted. And so the fact that he has no weapons of mass destruction does not become known. The Arab Spring arrives in 2011. The Shia and Kurds in Iraq immediately revolt. Saddam—in his trademark sanguinary fashion—kills proportionately more or as many people as Bashar al-Assad kills in Syria. The Bushes, father and son, are then blamed for not dealing with Saddam when they had the chance (remember that the elder Bush’s wisdom of not pushing on to Baghdad only became apparent after his son had gotten bogged down in Iraq).

In other words, there may never have been even the possibility of a soft landing for the Baathist regimes in the Levant, given how much these regimes pulverized society, eviscerating all forms of intermediary social organizations except for the state at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom. Whether we acted militarily or not, in Iraq or in Syria, the result in any event was going to be anarchy. This is fatalism, I know. It denies human agency—and, therefore, moral responsibility on our part. But while that might be reprehensible, it does not necessarily make my assertion false.

Libya and Syria are the current poster children of this conundrum. We intervened in Libya with airpower, special-operations forces and logistical assets in order to prevent dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi from killing masses of civilians in the Benghazi area. We then aided and abetted the toppling of his regime. The result has been sheer chaos in Libya, the undermining of Mali and the spread of weaponry throughout the Sahara. Tripoli is no longer the capital of a country, but a mere dispatch point for negotiations among tribes, gangs and militias. Chaos in Benghazi led to the murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Thus, was the decision to help topple Qaddafi a mistake—not only in geopolitical terms, but in moral terms as well? Proponents of the intervention claim that had we put more effort into stabilizing Libya after Qaddafi was killed, much of this would not have happened. But I seriously doubt—especially given the experiences in Vietnam and Iraq—that we have ever been capable of engineering reality on the ground in complex, alien societies. Germany and Japan were destroyed, defeated and occupied countries—and thus exceptions to the rule. And they had the tradition of being modern, industrialized societies and economies, unlike the countries of the Greater Middle East. At some point, at some level, we must respect the workings of fate, if only to restrain our vanity. It is for the same reason that we believe in God.

The question of Syria is harder. We did not try in earnest to help politically moderate fighters amid the Grand Guignol of forces battling to topple the Baathist Assad regime. Had we done so, the chances of being drawn into an intractable and infernally complex conflict, with dozens upon dozens of different militias arrayed, would have been substantial. But had we done so, there was also a chance of both toppling Assad and undermining both the birth and spread of the Islamic State. And yet there was also a chance of toppling Assad, even as we would have been unable to micromanage events on the ground, therefore helping to midwife a Sunni jihadist regime to power in Damascus. Take your pick. The truth is unknowable. And because it is unknowable, we cannot assume what fate has held in store for Syria since 2011.

WHAT IS the answer to all of this?