In the Arena

Iraq–Four Years Gone

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Greetings from Jordan on the fourth anniversary of the gravest foreign policy mistake in American history.

Several Swampland commenters asked that I review what I was thinking four years ago. I thought it might be interesting to look up what I wrote the week the war began. Here it is. My feelings about war had been extremely skeptical, to say the least. In the end, on the eve of the “shock and awe” I said–stupidly–on Meet The Press that I favored the invasion. It was the only time I ever spoke in favor of the war; I never wrote in favor of it. There are words and sentences in this column I regret, especially the line about Hans Blix. But these two paragraphs sum up my feelings then and, I think, hold up pretty well now:

Europe is where the bulk of history happened in the 20th century, at least as Americans perceived it. Asia is where it will take place in the 21st — in Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, China and Japan, not to mention Iran, North Korea and the floating fester of Islamic radicalism. The saga began last week in Iraq, a country that may soon be perceived as an American showcase, whether we like it or not. Iraq’s reconstruction will be as symbolically important as West Germany’s was after World War II, but it will be a much tougher project. With three vehement ethnic and religious groups within, and Islamic radicals in the hills nearby, it looks more like Yugoslavia than Germany. In that sense, Iraq predicts the complexities of Asia: the religions, cultures and traditions of governance are profoundly different from ours, the chances of lethal misunderstandings far greater than they were in Europe. President Bush seemed to dismiss this concern in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26: “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world…is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different, yet the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth.”
But surely it is not presumptuous to suggest that freedom isn’t easily imposed by outsiders, that it is nurtured slowly and indigenously and may develop in ways that we find strange. A disciplined American humility will be essential, and the reconstruction of Iraq is the first test. Will we welcome other countries as partners — and take the edge off the occupation by inviting the U.N. to play an active role in rebuilding the government — or will we run it arrogantly, unilaterally, colonially? The second test, an evenhanded effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, will be harder still. Beyond those will be many others, and the challenge will often be the same: Can we learn to use diplomacy as exquisitely as we do force? The American military taught a lesson by example last week: it is far better for others to wave our flag in tribute than for us to wave it in triumph.

The last time I was in Jordan, it was the week that the Abu Ghraib atrocities became public. Back in the region now, I can only think of the enormous calamity we have wreaked upon this part of the world. No, upon the whole world, which needs a much smarter superpower than we have been. Those who opposed the war–from Brent Scowcroft to Michael Moore–were right. Those who favored it were wrong. Those of us who were skeptical, but didn’t stand up more boldly to say: Wait a minute This is nuts–we were wrong, too.