Thank you, Senator John McCain, for your service to your country. By your own account, you were a rough kid, but your lifelong program of self improvement bore magnificent fruit. Quoting,
In his new memoir, he concedes that the war in Iraq he fought so hard to launch and then escalate now “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
In pursuit of making better history, a mistake should be squeezed for all it is worth. But if negation of past decisions were a good teacher, we would be better at making history than we are. So perhaps the learning process has a flaw.
In this case, the prospective flaw is thinking of the 2003 Iraq War as a unitary event. This is natural, because, historically, wars have been hard to start and hard to end. This is why the word has three letters, and rarely has modifiers, like mild, medium, or hot. You can try to choose the temperature, but it can run away from you. And unlike a bowl of chili, it can be impossible to finish the dish. Instead, the dish eats you.
So when the mistakes of war are analyzed, the opinions don’t include “it should have been hotter”, or “cooler.” Why fight a war for mediocre, inconclusive, conditional goals? Back in the day, the only modification of this was the occasional “intervention”, or “peacekeeping force”, but these deployments lacked contingent thinking about failures of mild persuasion. Hence tragedies like the tragedy of the 1982 deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon, with the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings.
Only in the past decade has there been a change in attitude towards conditional goals, forced upon us by the futility of unconditional victory. We had that victory in Iraq, and found no one to bestow it to. Yet our dream of individual liberty is so compelling, we staggered into the Syrian conflict with the same chimerical desire to bestow it to a culture that has no interest in it. In the Middle East, tribal and religious hegemony is, to the inhabitants, the natural order of things.
What would the period known as the 2003 Iraq War, and aftermath look like if it had been pursued with limited goals? And what would the current situation be if there had been no war? The cost of the mistake is actually an equation:
Total Cost = Cost of Iraq War minus Cost of No Iraq War
The Bush Administration contrived the WMD justification as the Cost of No War. It was a great selling point. Because it wasn’t true, popular belief has come to be that the second term did not exist. But perhaps Bush had another, more legitimate reason that couldn’t sell. FDR had the same dilemma through the late 30’s with the rise of Nazi Germany, solved for him by Pearl Harbor.
There were a very few of us who were interested in Saddam’s novels with the apparent self-reference to a caliph-like character, who builds the Caliphate, capitalized to signify the universal Islamic state. It is equivalent to the universal dominion of the Catholic Church that gradually disintegrated beginning in the 15th century.
Among this minority of thinkers, the possibility that Saddam could build a military power strong enough to dominate the Arab Middle East, and threaten the West, was more than theoretical; we considered the 1529 Siege of Vienna. But the Caliphate as expressed by Saddam was a figment of his novels, lacking expression in fact, since his defeats in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and 1990-1991 Gulf War.
But on 9/11/2001, we learned that there is very little difference between a figment and an empowering thought. Bin Laden, like Zarqawi, was light on ideology. Both proclaimed a need; the solution was the Caliphate. Again, see (Brookings, pdf) From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.
Between July 1979, when Saddam consolidated absolute power in a purge of the Ba’ath Party, and his fall in 2003, his wars of aggression against other countries in the region occupied almost half the time. The remainder was spent gassing the Kurds and with miscellaneous liquidations.
With the above, Saddam’s expressions of the Caliphate become more significant. Yet in recorded history, there is no case of a war because of something a ruler wrote in a novel. How could you sell it to the world?
I have always wanted to ask George W. Bush whether his WMD justification was in lieu of the danger of Saddam’s dreams. (George, how about a beer?) We are both fans of Tom Wolfe, so he has great literary taste. And we’re both painters. To Bush, and to the rest of the minority who were thinking about it, the second term in the equation, Cost of No Iraq War, provoked concern. If it is considered as a possibly huge unknown, whether the Iraq War was a mistake becomes the wrong question. It is replaced by at least two separate questions of cost:
- Of the war itself.
- Of the ambitions of the transition to a new civil government.
The critical decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority was De-Ba’athification, known as CPA Order 1, issued in May of 2003. The Ba’ath (“renewal”) Party was a pan-Arab movement with inclinations toward revolutionary and violent struggle, drawing inspiration from Trotskyism. In both Syria and Iraq, slight pluralism in the Ba’ath movement was resolved by coups and assassinations.
It is not hard to see why the neoconservatives wanted Order 1. Ba’ath was the hotbed of pro Saddam sentiment, and it oppressed the Shiite majority. At the time, Order 1 was criticized mainly for the expulsion of trained and qualified civil servants, without a reservoir of replacement talent. Although defects in civil government were obvious to close observers, it became visible from afar in the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, at the high watermark of ISIS.
But we neglected something that may have been more important, that Ba’ath was also a reservoir of secular thought. Ba’ath spanned Iraq, where Sunnis dominated, and Syria, where the Alawites functioned within, and eventually dominated Ba’ath. By destroying the Ba’ath Party, we destroyed the instrument of secular expression in Iraq.
The CPA had another choice, to leave an eviscerated Ba’ath Party in control. In the history of the Party, only one figure with figments of the Caliphate has appeared, Saddam himself. At the time of Order 1, it was natural to worry that another Saddam might emerge. But it was actually CPA Order 1 that set the stage for ISIS.
Can a democracy send its sons and daughters to fight a war without the ideals represented by Order 1? Would they have sacrificed so that a bunch of Iraqi politicians with mildly murderous inclinations could stay in a place that gave birth to one of the monsters of the 20th and 21st century? To decide, average people have to look at the deadly equation,
Total Cost = Cost of Iraq War minus Cost of No Iraq War
and then, maybe kiss their kids goodbye. Maybe this is too much. John McCain and George Bush, what do you think?
Tomorrow reminds us of the cost.