Ever since the drumbeat of war against Iraq began to be sounded in September 2002, I have been reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s book, The March of Folly. “For a government’s policy or a nation’s courts of action to be considered folly,” Tuchman writes, “it must meet three criteria. First, it must be perceived in its own time as counterproductive to that group’s own self-interest, not just in hindsight. Second, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available when the policy was adopted. And third, the policy must be that of a group, not just a single individual.”
In all three respects I think George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and our nation’s acquiescence in this action, make the American misadventure in Iraq another case study in the march of folly.
We went into Iraq to uncover Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, at a time when the evidence for such an arsenal was inconclusive, and when UN weapons inspectors were in the country doing their jobs and asking for more time. Of course, we found no weapons of mass destruction, but we have succeeded in increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region — not just in Iran, but through the inexorable logic of the security dilemma in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria; and, if proliferation takes place in these countries, then who knows what the Israeli reaction will be?
We went into Iraq to eliminate a regime allegedly tied to radical Islamic terrorists, in the face of all logic and evidence to the contrary. We found no such ties, but we have amply succeeded in creating a breeding ground for terrorists that will pose a threat for many, many years to come. We went into Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people from the tyranny of one of the most brutal and oppressive governments in the world. Instead, tragically, in many parts of the country today the Iraqis are prisoners in their own homes. The list of ironies is truly long, and it continues to grow. How can we morally extricate ourselves from this ever-growing web of irony?
Two years ago, as Peggy Steinfels has mentioned, many of us who were invited by the Fordham Center to address “The Ethics of Exit” suggested that the United States ought to withdraw from Iraq sooner rather than later, some of us suggested within the year. That was before the bombing of the Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra, before the insurgency became a civil war, before Baghdad and other cities became religiously divided, with armed gangs of murderers enforcing the boundaries.
In spite of all the changes that have taken place in the past two years, I still believe that the United States should withdraw as soon as possible, leaving behind a small contingent to continue the training of Iraqi security forces that will be part of an international effort to stabilize the country.
Now of course, we are all familiar with the objections that are immediately raised whenever an American exit from Iraq is suggested.
First, we are told that our departure will increase sectarian violence and lead to the breakup of Iraq. Well, many parts of Iraq outside the Kurdish north are already gripped by sectarian violence, and indeed have already been ethnically cleansed. The lurking danger now is that of increasing violence within the Shiite population, a taste of which we saw recently when Karbala had to be evacuated of 1 million pilgrims when rival Shiite militias started gun battles in the heart of the city.
Iraq is already in many ways three states — autonomous Kurdistan in the north, an almost completely Shiite province in the south with Basra as its capital, and Anbar province in the west that is largely ruled by tribes with greater affinity to their Jordanian cousins and with little loyalty to the government in Baghdad.
Iraq resembles more and more Lebanon of the mid-1970s. Now, of course, in that crisis Syria intervened, with the blessing of the Arab League, to end the civil war. But the war continued for some fourteen years afterwards, and the Syrian military remained in Lebanon for thirty years. Is the United States prepared for such a commitment in Iraq?
Second, we are told that our departure will embolden the terrorists, who will then follow us back home. Now, this statement disregards the fact that our presence in Iraq is already emboldening the terrorists and providing radical Muslim groups with their principal recruiting motivation today. The fact that we are fighting some elements of Al Qaeda in Iraq does not mean that they are not simultaneously plotting attacks against Americans, and others, outside of Iraq. Al Qaeda is not a conventional army that can be pinned down in Iraq. It operates by seizing opportunities whenever and wherever it can find them.
Third, we are told that our departure will aid Iran in the creation of this alleged “Shiite Crescent” that will spread all the way from Iran into Lebanon, with Hezbollah being its western anchor. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think this is one of the biggest canards of all. First of all, Iran is already the biggest beneficiary of American policies in Iraq. Its mortal enemy Saddam Hussein has been removed. The Shiites are political ascendants in Iraq. And, sooner or later, the U.S. will have to leave Iraq. The Iranians don’t. This doesn’t mean, however, that Iraq is likely to become a puppet of Iran should we leave the country. There is little to suggest in history that the ethnic divisions between Arabs and Persians will be surmounted by the common Shiite faith.
Moreover, there is little to suggest that there is any substance to this notion of a “Shiite Crescent” that has been touted by the likes of King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Now, instead of playing a constructive role in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq, as many of us had hoped for, Arab leaders have engaged in nothing but outright fear mongering. So what if we leaved Iraq soon, say, within the year, again leaving behind a small force in conjunction with a truly multilateral effort?
The civil war may continue, and it may even escalate. But, quite frankly, this is a war we cannot win for the Iraqis.
On the other hand, the shock of America’s departure may just provide the catalyst for the Iraqis to start working to resolve their own problems. America’s departure from Iraq may well provide the impetus for regional powers to play a constructive role, rather than watching Iraq burn as if it is in another city rather than in their own backyard. The terrorists won’t give up their battle, and they may even claim they have won. But so what? They are claiming that already. They are claiming that today.
Iran may increase its meddling in Iraq. But again, so what? Iran is meddling in Iraq today, along with Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and indeed the United States of America.
To read the Q and A session, click here.
Sohail Hashmi is the author of The Islamic Ethics of War and Peace and associate professor of International Relations and Alumnae Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences at Mount Holyoke College.