In the very final episode of “Fawlty Towers,” the classic ’70s British sitcom, the local Health and Safety Inspector confronts a hapless Basil with a long and horrendous list of everything that is wrong with his hotel, including “dirty and greasy filters, encrusted deep fryer, inadequate temperature control, dirty cracked and missing wall and floor tiles, greasy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, storage of raw meat above confectionary with consequent dripping of meat juices onto cream products, refrigerator seals loose and cracked, lack of hand basins and two dead pigeons in the water tank.”
To which the inimitable John Cleese replied: “Otherwise OK?”
I was reminded of that classic comedy recently when Tony Blair, who helped lead us into the Iraq flytrap ten years ago, appeared on BBC’s “Newsnight.” In painstaking detail, the former British prime minister admitted that life in Iraq today is not quite what he had hoped it would be.
After all, there “are still terrorist activities that are killing innocent people for no good reason.” The “liberation” of Iraq saw the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians (other estimates are up to 200,000), not to mention thousands of coalition troops. The country is still facing “big problems.” All true, conceded Blair. But when all is said and done, he reasoned, at least a murderous despot is gone and democracy has taken root in the heart of the Arab world.
Never mind that the war was built on a series of falsehoods propagated by neocon-artists: who can forget the dodgy dossier and the “45-minute” Iraqi missile threat? Never mind that the tried and tested policy of containment (sanctions, no-fly zone, naval blockade) had kept Saddam Hussein in his box. And never mind that the task of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure.
The point here is that ten years since “shock and awe,” Iraq has become an unmitigated disaster, something that many antiwar critics—from Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Al Gore on the left to Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and this magazine on the right—had predicted.
The Baathists and Islamists were not in cahoots, yet Saddam’s collapse attracted al-Qaeda fighters like flies on a dying animal. The occupation replaced a Sunni regime with a Shia regime, setting Shia against Sunni. In Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency against the alien occupiers, Sunnis are rising up against the Shia-led government that the Americans left behind.
Iran has expanded its sphere of influence into the mess-in-potamia. Iraqi women are more repressed than ever. Militia killings and car bombings take place almost every week. America paid dearly in blood and treasure and its reputation was tainted by the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and the CIA’s secret prisons. The streets of many towns are less safe today than before “liberation.” Some two million refugees have fled the joint.
True, President Bush’s “surge” in 2007 bought some time to allow “democratic” elections to take place, but never enough time, as erstwhile hawk Andrew Sullivan now concedes, to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to try to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity.
Albert Wohlstetter, the intellectual mentor to leading neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, once said that “a truly bad idea never really dies.” Today, many of the same people who championed an egregious strategic blunder a decade ago support a pre-emptive strike on Iran. And many neocons and liberal hawks alike are egging on a cash-strapped Uncle Sam to meddle in Syria’s civil war.
But surely the lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy cannot be rolled out like Astroturf, and imposing it on artificial states and medieval societies courts danger. Nor is preventive war the right way to handle tyrants with nukes. Unlike terrorists who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive. If the Mullahs used WMDs against U.S. interests, the Iranian regime would meet, as academic Condi Rice put it before she entered government, “national obliteration” from the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Too bad Blair and the neocons have not learned the lessons of their misbegotten venture.
Otherwise OK, as Basil Fawlty would say.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia and a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.