I write as an historian, offering no special expertise on current American politics or the military and political situation in Iraq and promising no new facts or ideas. Trying to say something original about the Iraq imbroglio is like trying to invent new letters for the alphabet—impossible and pointless. I propose instead to present familiar facts in another way, believing that sometimes ideas, individually well known and in the mainstream, in different combination suggest an unexpected conclusion.

I also assume that history counts, that the prevalent American historical perspectives on this war are inadequate and misleading, and that a sounder sense of history can not only free us from the tyranny of misleading historical analogies but also suggest different and better ones. While the past does not predict the future, and no historian should pretend to be a prophet, one indispensable way to look into the future is to walk carefully back into the past.

That means starting with recent history, inquiring how six years of global war on terror and five years of regular and counterinsurgency war in Iraq leave the U.S. now facing two apparently unquenchable fires of insurgency, terrorism, and civil war—fires that threaten the entire Middle East and adjacent areas, including Pakistan, as well as South Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and North Africa. While taking note of American intentions, aims, motives, and agendas—declared and undeclared—and the debates over these, I will concentrate, as historians should, more on what the American government actually did in its supposed efforts to prevent and then fight these fires, what its actions objectively constituted within the international system, and what results they produced. In history, especially in international affairs, results count more than intentions, and the most important results are very often the ironic, unintended ones.

Preventing the Fire

Two major facts must be recognized at the outset: the fire in Iraq (though not Afghanistan) could have been prevented, and the American government deliberately decided against doing so. These are not controversial assertions but undeniable facts. Other questions about preventing fires at this time remain debatable—whether the attacks of 9/11 might have been averted or blunted by better intelligence and quicker action, whether the Clinton administration could have weakened al-Qaeda earlier, whether a more determined campaign in Afghanistan could have destroyed al-Qaeda and prevented further terrorism. But this much is certain: first, the Bush administration, supported by most of the Congress and the American people, decided to treat an alleged potential threat of explosion emanating from Iraq as more imminent and dangerous than the actual fire burning in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere; and second, it chose against resistance at home and widespread opposition from the international community not to use existing, standard methods of fire prevention.

Much of this—the priority the U.S. gave Iraq over Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and the choice of preventive war—is universally acknowledged. Astonishingly, however, the equally important and undeniable fact that its policy in 2002-03 deliberately rejected international methods for fire prevention in Iraq has still not been squarely faced, much less accepted. This gets ignored or swept aside by disputes over other questions, arguably interesting and important but not central—Saddam Hussein’s nature and intentions, Iraq’s capabilities, the existence or not of WMD, the motives and aims of America’s leaders, the quality and use of American intelligence, the genuine or deceptive character of arguments for military action, and so on.

This shell game, whether it represents a deliberate tactic or not, has led Americans to misunderstand the struggle at the UN that culminated in America’s failure to gain a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq and its decision to proceed without one. The American public has been led to believe that the sole, decisive issue was whether Iraq possessed WMD or active programs to develop them. If so, military action would have automatically been justified and needed. This remains the administration’s defense of the decision for preventive war: along with other countries and on the basis of reasonable intelligence, it genuinely considered Saddam’s weapons a threat to which the only effective response was force.

That completely distorts the debate. It was not simply over whether Saddam possessed WMD and/or active weapons programs, with everyone agreeing that military action was required if he did. The contest was over two distinct questions. The first was about facts and evidence. Had Iraq’s weapons and programs already been sufficiently proved (the American position), or should the UN arms inspectors led by Hans Blix be given more time to make sure? The second, even more important from the standpoint of international politics and law, was about the best response. If the threat proved real, should the international community immediately authorize military action or first expand the existing UN-authorized sanctions against Iraq to try to force Saddam to surrender his weapons and submit to international controls?

The choice therefore lay between the American position that the threat was already proved, that other methods would take too long and be ineffective, and that only military action could deal with it, and the arguments of others, led by France, for more time to make sure of the threat and, should it prove real, for using standard methods and instruments of containment, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy before resorting to military action. In other words, it was a choice between starting a fire in the Middle East to counter one allegedly already smoldering and about to break out and trying fire prevention first.

On both scores, the American position proved wrong and its opponents’ right—and once again Americans have largely missed the significance of this. The failure to find any evidence of WMD or active programs after conquering and occupying Iraq is not, as is constantly supposed, important chiefly because it undermines the official rationale and justification for the war and shows that the administration manipulated prewar intelligence in order to deceive the American people. Whether or not those charges are true is not the real issue. The inability to locate WMD proved precisely what opponents of war had earlier contended: traditional international methods of containment, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy not only could work in the new age of terror, but in fact had worked. Iraq had no WMD because the previous decade of sanctions and pressure had effectively deterred Saddam from reviving his earlier programs. Thus, by insisting on military action, the U.S. aborted a long-established international protocol for fire prevention that had already succeeded in Iraq. It ignited a fire supposedly to counter another fire that was already effectively extinguished.

Starting the Fire

The U.S. acted in Iraq not as a fire brigade but as an arsonist. This does not describe the administration’s aims, but something more fundamental—the objective character of the American decision in the context of international politics. The motives were mixed, but a central reality remains: the Bush administration opted for war because it considered it intrinsically a good idea. No one can seriously doubt this.

The administration has always acknowledged, even boasted of, the war’s preemptive (actually, preventive) character. It never seriously claimed that the U.S. had been attacked or immediately threatened by Iraq—a claim too preposterous to believe. The initial military success inspired great celebrations of the war’s benefits for America, the Middle East, and the world.

One must therefore consider why this was so, what general mindset lay behind starting the fire, what its particular intent and anticipated effects were. It was supposed to be multi-purpose, first of all preventive, like fires deliberately set by the Forest Service to preempt bigger natural ones—in the famous phrase, to make sure that the smoking gun would not turn into a mushroom cloud. It was also—if one can seriously envision this—supposed to be a surgically precise firestorm. It would kill or drive out the criminal inhabitants of a particular building in a dangerous, unstable, crowded neighborhood without destroying the structure or spreading the fire to the whole city. The fire-strike, moreover, as launched and executed in spectacular fashion, was unaccompanied by serious planning or preparation for extinguishing it and repairing the building. Indeed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flatly prohibited this. The fire-strike was expected to be not only surgical but also purgative and curative, driving tyranny and terrorism from Iraq while also bringing peace, freedom, democracy, ethnic, religious, and national reconciliation, and the blessings of a market economy across the region. It would further be self-limiting, dying out on its own and preventing other fires from breaking out, and would promote new constructive activity. The damaged building would be rebuilt better than before by new owners, with no further American exertion required beyond leadership and advice.

The mindset behind this fire was thus a truly extraordinary, heroic example of a phenomenon all too common in international politics: utopian optimism. This is not the mild verdict it might seem. Utopianism is extremely dangerous in international politics, and this particular kind—reckless, ignorant, arrogant, overconfident, and oblivious to logic, facts, and history—is arguably the worst variety.

Fighting the Fire

After deliberately refusing to plan and provide for extinguishing the fire it had started and doing its best to silence the growing number of calls for doing so, the administration tardily discovered that it had a real insurgency on its hands. The story of how this unanticipated fire started and developed is both too complicated and too familiar to rehearse here, but three general points are important for our purposes.

The first is that the U.S. had chances to dampen the fire it had started, if not entirely extinguish it, and rejected them because doing so would interfere with other goals. The best opportunity to end the fire by simply letting it burn itself out came after the downfall of Saddam’s regime and the end of military operations in May 2003, when the first American commander of the occupation, retired Gen. Jay Garner, proposed withdrawing American troops and letting the Iraqis sort things out for themselves. Given the size and character of the American forces and the lack of preparation for an effective occupation, this was logical. But it would have sacrificed the dream of molding Iraq and the entire Middle East according to America’s image and the plan to make Iraq the central base for U.S. regional hegemony.

So Garner was replaced by L. Paul Bremer, and a different, more intrusive occupation ensued. Having started the war because it wanted to, the U.S. failed to end it because it did not really want to—that is, it would not pay the price of sacrificing some goals and assuming attendant risks.

The second fact to emphasize is that in fighting the insurgent fire in Iraq, the U.S. has mainly succeeded in feeding it. This conclusion will not surprise anyone with any sense of history—that war tends to feed on war is one of its oldest and most recurrent themes—and is no longer controversial. A huge literature supports it, the most recent National Intelligence Estimate confirms it, and no amount of spin or denial by the president’s men will make it go away.

Most Americans have come to accept what many analysts have long seen, but they still discuss the reasons for this phenomenon and the dangers it presents in old, superficial ways. The question remains essentially, “How and where did the occupation go wrong, and who was responsible?” The answers almost invariably blame contingent, tactical factors—the wrong kinds of weapons, training, and military tactics; too few troops on the ground; too little knowledge of Iraq; incompetence, inexperience, and corruption; crimes and scandals; political and administrative blunders; and the like. An interesting variant, more popular today than ever, is to blame the Iraqis themselves—not merely the terrorists and insurgents, of course, but also and especially the Iraqi government for failing to do its job.

The discussion of the dangers of a prolonged insurgency and embattled occupation is just as superficial, concentrating mainly on American casualties, the strain on our Armed Forces, the financial and political costs of the war, and the dangers to the homeland of spreading terrorism. Much less attention centers on the most imminent and important threat. Iraq itself is being destroyed—perhaps has been destroyed —both as a state and as a functioning society. Leaving aside the enormous human tragedy, no stable Middle East is conceivable with Iraq as a political, social, religious, ethnic, and economic black hole, creating problems for world peace and stability that are almost incalculable.

Thus, after five years of counterproductive failure, the dominant American perspective on the Iraq War remains marked by endless vistas of myopia. Concentrating attention on tactical failures enables those who decided on and promoted this war to escape accountability and allows its current defenders to justify the original policy while condemning its execution and continuing the war. It lets Americans scapegoat the Iraqis for results for which they were not primarily responsible. The fact is that the U.S. destroyed the former Iraqi governmental apparatus and created a new government under conditions that virtually guaranteed that it would be dysfunctional. It broke the Iraqis’ legs and now complains because they cannot jump the high hurdles. Most importantly, emphasizing the tactical and contingent causes of failure promotes the idea that the war can still be won or further failure averted by changing tactics and adding resources and effort—the rationale behind the current surge. Similarly, concentrating on the immediate costs and dangers of the war for Americans encourages the belief that if these can be reduced to tolerable levels, the problem will basically be solved.

Both views are not merely incredibly shallow but immensely harmful. They ignore the central fact that these tactical and contingent reasons for failure are not accidental. They flow predictably from the nature of the enterprise. The deeper reasons for failure, the fundamental reasons that fighting the war has fed the war, lie in fatal contradictions inherent in the war itself and the policy that led to it and are thus strategic, structural, and irremediable.

First come contradictions in the goals of the war, already noted. One can no more conceive of creating an independent, self-governing, liberal-constitutional democratic Iraq to be America’s satellite, ally, and base for the projection of U.S. power in the region through an American conquest and occupation than one can envision dry rain or snowy blackness.

To take just one of many contradictions involved: if miraculously a genuinely independent democratic Iraq did emerge from an American occupation, it would not long remain a dependent American ally but would act in its own interests, which are far from identical with those of the United States.

This proposition is axiomatic, or ought to be, but it is not at all abstract or theoretical. The attempt by the United States to achieve ends in Iraq that are inherently self-contradictory and therefore impossible has led directly and indirectly to many of the tactical, contingent blunders re-inforcing the insurgency.

One example: by common agreement, no one thing has done more to destroy America’s image and prestige in Iraq and to feed the fires of insurgency and terrorism there and elsewhere than the revelations about torture and inhumanity at Abu Ghraib. The American response has been either to try to minimize and deflect their impact by blaming and punishing a few low-level offenders while shielding those higher up the chain of command or to demand investigations into who was responsible, all the while denying that this ever represented American policy. This has effectively swept the main fact under the rug (for Americans, not others): this sort of scandal is more or less inescapable in this kind of conflict. Though it was promoted by some shocking decisions by high-ranking military and civilian authorities and should have been foreseen and handled very differently, it also flowed naturally from the war and occupation itself. One cannot expect to conquer a people, overthrowing its government and ruining and humiliating those who supported and benefited from it, without arousing violent resistance, predictably promoting a vicious circle of reprisals and atrocities on both sides.

Equally striking is the mismatch between the goals of the war and the historical means and process supposed to achieve them. In Iraq, military conquest and armed occupation by Western forces were supposed quickly to produce a liberal, constitutional, democratic state with a free-market economy and a strong, stable civil society. Parts of the West, including the United States, have now more or less achieved these goals—but only through an historical process that, ignoring its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, took about a thousand years and involved numerous stages—medieval constitutionalism; the administered police (i.e. social discipline) state; the constitutional Rechtsstaat; the parliamentary state, liberal-representative but not democratic; and finally, liberal-constitutional democracy. The evolution involved deep, wrenching social, economic, intellectual, and cultural changes—religious reformation, class struggle, scientific discovery, technological innovation, massive developments in education, literacy, and the growth of a public sphere, industrialization, modernization, urbanization, and so on. It was tortuous, convoluted, and twisted almost beyond belief, full of blind alleys and wrong turns, choked with violence, war, imperialism, and revolution, marked by as many defeats and failures as victories and advances, costly and dangerous, with numerous times when the process seemed hopelessly stalled or defeated. Yet we proposed to bring about this transformation in Iraq through one short easy war. What were we thinking?

This is not to say, as some do, that Iraqis, Arabs, Muslims in general, or other non-Westerners cannot achieve liberal-constitutional representative democratic government because their religion, culture, ideology, values, and history render them unfit. I consider that view profoundly mistaken, if not a lie. Nor does this imply that non-Westerners can learn nothing from the Western experience. It is full of lessons, positive and negative, for West and East alike. I am saying only that if Iraqis and others are to gain the blessings of freedom and democracy, they cannot get them this way.

Even more pertinent, they cannot acquire them at our hands. Americans, especially in this administration, seem oblivious to the disconnect between the characteristics and persona of America as a country and people and the ideals it supposedly pursues in Iraq. The U.S. is Western; it is imperialist in the sense of leading Western expansion into the non-Western world; it is overwhelmingly Christian, strongly pro-Israel, individualistic, and materialist in spirit, culture, and lifestyle; it is capitalist, rich, and extremely powerful. Unlike other American traits like self-preoccupation, provincialism, and widespread ignorance of other peoples’ languages, culture, and history, these are basic American characteristics that we will not change, and in many respects should not want to. Collectively, however, they disqualify America from being a direct agent of the fundamental changes we are trying to promote in Iraq or the Arab and Muslim worlds. The United States is an alien presence in that world, and a highly intrusive one, with bases, fleets, capital, and corporations, an invasive and subversive culture, and now an occupying Army. It is not merely the way the United States has conducted itself in Iraq that has fomented resistance and turned it into a breeding ground for more Islamic terrorism. It is the simple fact that being what we are, we are there at all.

This is not to designate the U.S. as the main problem in the region and its exit, bag and baggage, as the answer. The central problems of the Middle East are unquestionably internal and will certainly persist—probably get worse, at least temporarily, when the United States leaves. I am only stating the obvious: that we—being what we are and, in the main, must be and will remain—cannot solve those problems or meet the dangers they pose to our interests by our direct efforts, especially military ones. However executed, these are bound overall to be self-stultifying and counterproductive.

This conclusion seems too obvious to need proof, but let me try to illustrate with an historical example. At one point in the 16th century, when Western Christendom was being torn apart by the Protestant Reformation and the attendant struggles and wars, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman proposed that he be invited to arbitrate the theological disputes and help restore peace in Europe. This may not have been a cynical ploy. He was both a very powerful and fairly enlightened ruler. His favorite wife was a Christian, and Christians in the Ottoman Empire, though discriminated against, were recognized as People of the Book and were not widely persecuted or forcibly converted to Islam. Yet can anyone suppose that European Christians, however divided internally, could seriously consider this offer as a sincere attempt to help them, coming as it did from infidels and historic enemies of Christianity who had just conquered huge sections of southeastern Europe, almost capturing Vienna, and still menaced the whole Mediterranean?

There is an obvious reply to the argument of this essay: even if it is basically true, it is by now outdated and useless—one more pointless discussion of how the U.S. got into its current straits when the only relevant question now is how to get out. The lessons preached here have already been learned. Most Americans recognize that the war has been a failure and want to see the troops brought home. The president is highly unpopular, mainly because of his conduct of the war; his own supporters are abandoning him or threatening to. And the original grandiose war aims have been drastically scaled down even by the administration. Basically both parties and the country are now trying only to escape with a whole skin and avoid worse disasters; the only useful question is how to do so.

That response, for many an obvious ploy to escape accountability, is superficially plausible but nonetheless wrong. Leave aside the consideration that historical truth, honesty, and candid self-appraisal are intrinsically good, and vital for the souls of states as well as individuals. The governing truth is that, in the main, Americans have not learned the most important lessons from this war, and many powerful individuals and groups are doing their best to keep them from doing so. The public senses vaguely that the war has been a failure, but does not genuinely understand how and why it failed. Americans have turned against it and to a lesser degree have come to think that it was inherently a bad idea only because it has turned out badly—lasted too long, cost too many lives and too much money, seems headed toward stalemate or defeat rather than victory, and is making terrorism worse. In other words, most now consider the war something that has gone wrong but not something that was wrong. Public discussion in the media, the literature, and the political arena has therefore overwhelmingly centered on the question “What went wrong with the war?”—not “What is wrong with this war and with us?”

The argument here is that the war never went wrong; it always was wrong, in specific, basic ways. The distinction is fundamental, eminently practical, and involves lessons that the U.S.—its government, elites, and broad public alike—has not yet learned. It accounts for the fact that all of the current plans for getting out of Iraq are not really plans for genuinely getting out, but plans for staying on in one way or another so as to minimize further losses, recoup sunk costs, and protect particular interests. It means that until we squarely face what we have not hitherto faced as a nation—what this war represented, what we have done, and what this says about who and what we are—we will not be willing or able to take the practical steps necessary to contain the fire now burning, dampen and extinguish it as much as possible, and do what is necessary at home and abroad to prevent an even greater fire next time.

[Editor’s note: This is the first half of a two-part essay. The second installment will appear in our next issue.]
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Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1765-1848.