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In a previous thread, Ricochet member Majestyk expressed a major complaint that he has about libertarians, liberals and even conservatives who gripe about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: What is your alternate scenario?
If we could unwind the clock of history and place you inside George W. Bush’s head (a la Being John Malkovich) what is your preferred policy prescription for U.S. foreign policy in the days following 9/11?
I never hear that question answered and I barely hear it asked.
So, okay, I’ll give you my answer, and then see what you all think:
I am going to assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that we all agree Saddam Hussein was an outstandingly brutal dictator in a region that pretty much specializes in brutal dictators. He was a problem for his people, for his neighbors, and for the United States and our allies that would, eventually, need to be solved.
The key word there is ‘eventually.’ Since Saddam was not, in fact, responsible for 9/11, and did not present an immediate threat to us thanks to containment and sanctions, he need not have been anywhere near the top of the list of the nation’s priorities in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Had I been inside George W. Bush’s head, I would have been chanting “Afghanistan….Afghanistan… Afghanistan…”
Once the echo of my chanting died away (‘…ghanistan….istan….nnn”), I’d have recommended a swift, violent, targeted, and punitive attack on Afghanistan, with the goal of taking out Osama bin Laden and/or as many members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as possible while making it look easy.
When we were finished, if whomever remained in the way of Afghan leadership expressed a desire for help build a reasonable, decent country, we would join a broad coalition of other nations ready to help them do it. If they preferred to be a crummy, impoverished, savage backwater, so be it. Just don’t screw with us again.
What about Iraq?
For all their undoubted sufferings, there were advantages for the Iraqi people in being oppressed by Saddam Hussein.
First, he wasn’t an Islamist. He was barely a Muslim, one of several reasons why Osama bin Laden loathed him. (After the invasion of Kuwait, Osama proposed having his people push the Iraqis out, and was furious when the Saudis allowed the U.S. to do it instead, especially since this meant placing U.S. bases on sacred Saudi soil).
Saddam was a secular butcher. His heroes were Hitler and Stalin, so women in Iraq not only did not have to wear a hijab or hide in their homes, they were educated and employed. If they were targeted by the regime, it was for their politics, not their gender.
Second, Saddam was big on education. When he came to power, the vast majority of Iraqis were illiterate. When he left office (so to speak) the situation was reversed: the majority could read and write. Saddam wanted his country to be modern the way Hitler wanted Germany to be modern, so he invested in training and technology in a way that an Islamist state never would.
By educating his people and neglecting to oppress women, Saddam was creating the very class of people most likely to identify with Western, secular democracies, to increasingly resent being terrorized and oppressed, and to have the ability to organize his overthrow and manage the aftermath. I think it likely that, within a few years, Iraqis might well have created for themselves the very system that George W. Bush tried to impose by the worst of all possible means: an ineffectual bloodbath.
Tragically (in retrospect), we invaded. We trashed the infrastructure and sacked the police and army without providing alternative sources of law and order. The chaos inspired a massive, panicked brain-drain of the elites, and created a baleful association between the words “democracy” and “imperialism” in the minds of the Arab masses. Had we postponed dealing aggressively with Saddam, not only might we have spared thousands of American and Iraqi lives, but the Arab Spring might have bloomed a decade earlier in cleaner, richer soil.
The United States would have emerged from the post-9/11 period with undiminished moral capital, as well as the energy and will for further and more crucial armed interventions, both of which would give the president — any president —-a far stronger position from which to negotiate with other potentially problematic or threatening countries.