Among the long-term hopes for the war in Iraq was that ousting Saddam Hussein from power and establishing a reasonably democratic form of government would provide a model of freedom and stability that would inspire others in the region and lead eventually to a more secure region. U.S. officials still talk bravely as if this consummation is inevitable, and it could happen. But all actions have unintended consequences, and war tends to magnify them.
As of now, militancy in the region is on the rise rather than on the decline. The regional influence of an Iran that may be seeking nuclear weapons has been increased. Terrorists are using Iraq as a training base for attacks elsewhere. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey — even the United Arab Emirates — leaders are concerned that chaos and sectarian tensions in Iraq will spill into their countries.
“Who could possibly look at anything in Iraq and think, ‘I want some of that?’” Yusif Kanni, editor of the Turkish Daily News, recently wrote.
Even Israel, the country many war critics say the war advocates were trying to protect, may be less stable (though Ariel Sharon’s stroke also must be considered). Dore Gold, Israel’s former U.N. ambassador, says the war has fueled the spread of al-Qaida in the region. Gerald Steinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies cheers the ouster of Saddam but criticizes U.S. postwar policy. “The assumption that just being there and talking about democracy and elections would work was naive,” he told Knight Ridder correspondent Dion Nissenbaum.
What lessons might the United States take from what has been a more difficult and costly endeavor than advertised, even if it does bring a modicum of stability and decent governance in the long run?
First, Americans should learn the difference between a pre-emptive and a preventive war. A pre-emptive war occurs when there is solid evidence of an imminent attack (e.g., troop movements, bombs being loaded), and the country fearing attack strikes first. A preventive war is designed to counter a potential threat that might occur months, years or even decades down the road. Preventive wars are morally and strategically much more difficult to justify or carry out.
The attack on Iraq was clearly a preventive rather than a pre-emptive war and not justified by the values the United States claims to uphold. As reprehensible as he was, Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent or even a medium-term threat to the United States, and he wouldn’t have even if he had possessed weapons of mass destruction. His neighbors were not demanding a U.S. invasion; even those who went along had doubts.
It’s worth reminding ourselves, too, of the six sensible points of the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine, devised in 1984 by Colin Powell and Caspar Weinberger and designed to avoid entering a quagmire.
Americans would do well to learn more skepticism when their leaders are beating the war drums. Whether our leaders consciously lied during the run-up to the war may be impossible to know with certainty, but they clearly emphasized or chose to believe the evidence that validated their preferred course of action and downplayed countervailing evidence. Leaders have done so in the past and will do so in the future. Caveat emptor.
In the longer run, even before the fallout from Iraq clears completely, the United States should move toward a more modest conception of its role in the world. This is the most powerful country in the world, but it cannot shape the future of the entire world — and attempting to do so endangers freedom here at home. It is better to lead by example than to try to establish democracy by force of arms.