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Though the situation is still very fluid, there’s a real chance that our efforts at nation building in Iraq will soon come to naught. Given our investment of time, treasure, and blood in the country — to say nothing of the prospect of a wicked and hostile Islamic state taking its place — this is deeply depressing. It’s bad enough for those of us who are simply patriots. I can only imagine how those who fought there must feel.
On the assumption that things don’t turn around, it’s important that we figure out what led to this. As I see it, our failure is likely attributable to one of three causes: 1) That we left too early because we were insufficiently committed; 2) That our humanitarian scruples prevented us from fighting with sufficient violence; or 3) That Iraqis never had it in them to transition to a modern, small-l liberal state.
The first possibility has merit, especially in light of President Obama’s promise to leave as soon as soon as possible. At the very least, it made things worse. That said, this narrative is remarkably convenient for those of us who supported the war. Self-serving claims always warrant scrutiny, especially when they point blame at one’s political enemies. It might be true — or part of the truth — but it shouldn’t be accepted without considering other options.
The second possibility offers a much darker picture: that our gains in Iraq were always ephemeral due to our refusal to inflict the kind of damage necessary to meet our objectives. Leftist and hawkish propaganda aside, the war was neither particularly brutal nor bloody. The sad, disgusting reality may be that it should have been; i.e., that we can’t expect to remake a country without burning entire cities to the ground, civilians included. If this was the problem, the U.S. will either have to figure out how to cause that much damage in a world with a global media, or get out of the nation-building business altogether.
The third possibility is — if anything — even darker: that no amount of commitment or violence on our part could have turned Iraq around in a reasonable amount of time. For whatever combination of reasons, its people are simply not up to the task of creating a functioning society capable of playing by the rules of modern civilization — at least not now. If this is the case, then our nation-building was doomed before we even started. We would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and money by waging a merciless punitive war until someone with marginal authority surrendered. After receiving the necessary kowtows, we’d have told Iraq’s new leaders that they’re more than welcome to join the civilized world, but that we’d bring nukes if they gave us the kind of trouble Saddam used to. Then, we’d shake the dust of the place off our sandals and get back to living.
Figuring out which — if any — of these explantions led to our current situation is incredibly important. The U.S. is going to be the world’s superpower for a while yet … so we might as well get better at it.
Photo Credit: This image was originally posted to Flickr by DVIDSHUB at http://flickr.com/photos/28650594@N03/4557821521