A successful surge in Iraq is welcome news, but legislators, the media, and average Americans should exercise caution and some skepticism before accepting any news about Iraq that they’re already eager to hear. And bear with me for raising an old-fashioned issue, but is there still a question of moral responsibility for this war that should be addressed before we declare victory in Iraq?
Attacks and deaths in Iraq are down, at least for the present, and it’s tempting to turn our attention to things that affect us more directly, like the price of gas and the foreclosure crisis. But our next steps call for thoughtful consideration. Some of the tragedy of this war resulted from our failure to think carefully enough at the beginning; now is no time to repeat that mistake.
The Bush administration led the way in this bad thinking from the start, selling itself on the war by using only the intelligence that appeared to support its plans for Iraq — some of which were formulated before 9/11 — and ignoring the rest. Unfortunately the administration was able to use the same hand-picked intelligence to convince the nation to undertake a war that it would never have accepted if it had known everything the administration knew or should have known.
Given the relative calm in Iraq and the prospect of ready access to Iraqi oil, it’s easy to forget just how ill-begotten this war was. All of the arguments used to justify it at the beginning fell apart during its execution — no WMD, no connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, no imminent threat to the United States, and so on — and yet the administration never stopped using them to promote the war, and some of the citizenry never stopped believing them.
The costs of the war have been tremendous, but many of them are so familiar that they hardly register anymore. But can we remember too often that more than 4,100 American troops have been killed while fighting honorably in a dubious cause? The wounded number more than 30,000, and the extent of their suffering is immeasurable.
The Iraqis? So many have died that we can place the toll only uncertainly somewhere along a wide range of estimates, the bloodiest of which exceeds one million.
We’ve managed to blunt the enormous financial cost of the war by charging it — in the modern American way — to future generations. But the cost is likely to be accounted in trillions of dollars and the potential impact on the economy that our children will face is ominous.
What else? Serious damage to the civil liberties guaranteed in our Constitution, as well as violation of the invaluable humane principles on which our Constitution is based. Legitimization of the concept of pre-emptive war. Creation of more motivations for terrorists. Exhaustion of our armed forces. Diminishment of our moral standing in the world.
Imagine: we now live in a country with leadership actually willing to condone torture.
Perhaps worst of all, the war caused us to squander a remarkable opportunity to exercise our enormous power — military, economic, cultural — in ways that could encourage new global efforts to make life more tolerable for seven billion humans in the only place in the universe where we know life exists. Instead, we prosecuted an old-fashioned — some would say imperial — war that had the effect of intensifying ancient sectarian divisions, all in the pursuit of oil, the energy source of the past.
Can a war this bad be made into a good war just by winning it?
No. But the presidential election in November, regardless of who wins, provides an opportunity to break with the malfeasance and incompetence of the Bush administration, to admit the war was a mistake, and to involve the international community, particularly Muslim nations, in a systematic resolution of the tensions in the Middle East.
The challenges of the 21st century — energy, environment, food, nuclear weapons — call for a new kind of global leadership that the United States is in a unique position to provide. Iraq, one of the great blunders of the old way of doing things, is a moral obstacle to our assumption of that leadership role that’s unlikely to be removed by the mere application of our overwhelming military power.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)