On March 19, 2003, the United States began its invasion of Iraq. As the television coverage of the fall of Baghdad spread across the globe, the world was introduced to a literally unprecedented historical phenomenon: war without sacrifice. America reached halfway around the world and demolished a foreign government in two weeks with minimal casualties and subjecting its citizens at home without the slightest drop in their standard of living. It was power of an order never before seen.
Or it appeared to be. The insurgent violence following President Bush’s May 1, 2003 announcement of the “end of major combat operations” has escalated into civil war. Top military leadership proved inflexible and arrogant: Donald Rumsfeld fired military advisers who counseled deploying more troops from the outset. Inexperienced reconstruction officials picked solely on the basis of party loyalty debated anti-smoking campaigns and traffic codes while hospitals were looted and car bombs exploded outside their fortified offices. We lost Iraqi trust through our failure to secure even the most basic necessities of life: clean water, electricity, explosive-free roads.
After Iraq’s WMDs failed to appear and Iraqis didn’t leap to buy TiVos and open up Burger Kings, the official justifications for the war approached incoherence. Why are we in Iraq? Because there are terrorists there. Why are there terrorists there? Because we’re in Iraq. Stare into this spinning wheel of circular logic long enough and you too might realize that the ill-defined benefits of “staying the course” are worth the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens of the very country we supposedly set out to liberate.
America turned an entire nation into a political science laboratory for what could be called the Full Metal Jacket Theory of international relations: “Inside every gook, there’s an American waiting to get out.” Encouraged by an explicit rejection of multiculturalism, our policymakers ignored the most basic sensibilities of Iraqi society. Marines searched through clothes drawers in nighttime raids while Muslim women and their husbands stood by in their underwear. The Iraqi national museum was looted while troops secured the Oil Ministry. The president referred to the war as a “crusade.” Republican Rep. Terry Everett of Alabama serves on a House intelligence committee and didn’t know the difference between rival Sunni and Shiite Muslims. When a reporter explained, he replied: “Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”
There is perhaps no more potent symbol of the enormous ignorance behind the invasion than the fate of Babylon. While archaeologists pleaded for the United States to respect the ancient cradle of civilization, the Army built a helicopter pad next to the remains of the Ishtar Gate. The parts of Babylon’s walls that weren’t shattered by vibrations from tanks and helicopters were packed into sandbags for fortifications or taken by soldiers as souvenirs. The symbolic power of the conquest of ancient Mesopotamia has now been overshadowed by the image of Cletus looting statues of Lord Marduk.
To a man with only an axe, everything looks like a tree, even if the job at hand calls for subtler tools. The very people who were so intoxicated by military power that they relied on it to the exclusion of all else have done more to destroy that power than anyone else. Trapped in Iraq, the military can’t perform its fundamental mission as a deterrent to actual threats, such as Iran and North Korea. Abu Ghraib has become a recruitment poster for terrorists, yet Congress endorsed such abuses with the recent detainee torture bill. Most tragically, the global groundswell of allegiance and sympathy for America following Sept. 11 has been squandered for an ego-driven war that has created new terrorists and reinforced al-Qaida’s anti-Western propaganda message.
America has maintained its prominence because the world understood that, even if it didn’t like our power, there was likely no other nation that could be trusted to do better with it. Without yoking this power to the global common good, as we did in establishing the United Nations, our might can only generate resentment and rebellion. The war in Iraq was an error not merely of execution, but of intent; by failing to follow the standards the United States expects others to respect, we undermined the framework of international cooperation we need to fight terrorism effectively.
This Congress must be unseated and replaced with another willing to shine light on the abuses of the war and bring the legitimacy of international law back to American foreign policy. Only then can America be restored to the power that constituted our strongest national defense in the past – that power that does not compel obedience through force of arms but inspires allegiance by force of example.
Toby Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.