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Iraq: Even If We Win We Lose

by Jules R. Benjamin --

Has George W. Bush surged to victory in Iraq? If so, he can thank Iraqi tribalism, the success of ethnic cleansing, the loss of legitimacy by Al Qaida in Iraq, the “standing down” of the Sunni militias and Iran’s willingness to let its friends in Baghdad make their own peace with Washington.


The anti-U.S. Shia militia of Muktada al Sadr also left the field. Only one factor behind victory was made-in-USA: the success, finally, of the counterinsurgency wing of the U.S. military in shifting tactics from policing a civil war to dividing the insurgency. Why it took five years to figure this out is worth pondering. Nevertheless, the shift in tactics would not have made much difference had not the other developments also occurred. By that time the damage to Iraq, to our military and economy had already occurred.

While the Bush administration may have been surging to victory, most Americans came to realize that the war, sold as a way to eliminate Saddam’s WMDs and his secret alliance with Osama Bin Laden and to spread the blessings of liberty throughout the Middle East, had very different aims. One didn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to conclude that the war was mainly geostrategic in its goals.

Saddam was evil but less because he “gassed his own people” (he also gassed Iranians but they don’t count) than because he had the will (and might at some point have had the ability) to use his military forces and Iraqi oil reserves to upset the strategic balance in the Middle East. He might have evaded sanctions, sold Iraqi oil for Euros rather than dollars, threatened Israel, intimidated the emirates, invaded Saudi Arabia, etc. Then again, conscious of his own weakness, he might not have done any of these things. The war came when the Bush administration decided to eliminate these geostrategic risks by preemptive war.

For the administration, the evil dictator theme worked long enough and well enough to defy opposition to the war. Many Americans and much of the media had heard the vague references to the roles of strategic position and oil wealth. But they were satisfied that the “real” motives were things that they (or someone else) could properly die for.

There were very large anti-war demonstrations well before the leaks and exposes of the post-2003 period. Many Americans refused to accept the lies and the imperial motives that hid behind them. Still, the Bush administration was able to move toward war because many Americans, fooled or not, wanted to “liberate” Iraq; wanted to secure access to oil; wanted to “stand tall.” Even when they could peek behind the curtain, they did not look too closely. A similar orientation explains the reaction of much of the media and of the opposition in Congress.

Of course there were news organizations and political forces that found the lies easy to believe or that accepted the need for them. More significant was that most of the media was not willing to challenge a “wartime” president. Once George Bush − with the aid of the events of 9/11 − declared war on terror, his power was immense. In newsrooms and minority caucuses people were susceptible to the fear that powerful political voices and many millions of Americans would easily label dissent at that point as treason. To be effective, opposition forces had to face that fear directly. It would have to challenge the lies of the administration at a time when evidence of them was not great and when even saying that the president was “lying” made one's own motives suspect.

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It would have to challenge the coziness with power of some media and the fear of that power by others. Most difficult perhaps, it would have to challenge the fear of the American people, their trust in their leaders, and, in some, the desire to hear the eagle scream again. Finally, war with Afghanistan had gone unchallenged and had already been “won.” In the coming months we will again face the difficulty of challenging one war while accepting another, especially when much of the justification for one has been applied to the other.

Some Americans want to live in the seat of an empire. For them pre-emptive war is not so difficult to justify. When America invades other nations because they might threaten its interests and when it consciously chooses war because it possesses huge military forces, then citizens of the empire can be proud − even while others are ashamed.

The main danger of geostrategic wars (aside from their “collateral damage”) is that our republic can be grievously wounded by them. A war fought by a republic is lawful and in defense of values that serve the republic. This is why lies become necessary and not only to hide the true motives but to allow us to look away when the sausage of empire is being made. Demonizing the enemy and questioning the loyalty of any who challenge the policy help us to believe that our empire somehow serves our republic when the opposite is the case.

Reasonable citizens of a republic may understand that conducting high-tech war abroad does little to prevent small groups of terrorists from flying planes into office towers; that an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy assures that a “war on terror” of some kind will never end. Still, we should not assume that such points are obvious or persuasive.

The irony implicit in an “empire of liberty” is one that has haunted us from the start. Now it offers us a war to assure our economic interests in the Middle East. It declares victory in that war just as the structure of the U.S. economy begins to topple. The rent fabric of the rule of law may now catch on the broken windows of abandoned homes.

by Jules R. Benjamin

Jules R. Benjamin, PhD University of Pennsylvania, is a retired professor of history (Foreign Policy and International Relations). He is the author of A Student's Guide to History.

Republished with permission from the History News Network where it first appeared.