Iraq: The Misuses of History

I’ve shied away from discussing the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War because most of the analysis I’ve seen didn’t seem to add anything new to our understanding of the situation on the ground or the terms of our domestic debate. The former remains cloudy and depends largely on whether you believe the Surge has been a tactical success or a strategic miscalculation, and as a consequence, the latter seems reduced to the realm of tactics and policy, to the detriment of strategy and history.

A satisfying exception is Simon Serfaty’s monograph, A Bad War Gone Worse, from The Washington Quarterly, which I bookmarked a few weeks ago and finally got around to reading today. Serfaty offers historical context and some significant correctives that I think deserve attention. In particular, he examines in detail the misuses of historic precedent that figured so prominently in the case for war, but are also increasingly showing up in our analysis of the mistakes made in the last five years.

Some of them, such as the emotionally manipulative use of the Munich Accords in the aftermath of 9/11 or the misguided comparisons between Iraq and post-War Germany, have already figured prominently in war critiques. Ditto the insistence of the Bush adminstration’s national security team to view the challenges of the post-9/11 moment through the lense of their extremist reading of the Cold War. But they’re worth re-visiting in the context of what we’ve learned since, if only to draw the post-9/11 moment to a close and get a clear-sighted start on the post-post-9/11 era that’s opening.

Others, though, have largely been ignored. Among them, Serfaty points to the intoxification with the post-Cold War Reagan Doctrine, for instance, that blinded apostles of democratization to the more appropriate historical analogy of Eisenhower’s policy of regime change (e.g. Iran, Lebanon), with its longterm consequences for American policy still felt to this day.

Significantly, Serfaty also spreads the blame, both for the war (which he says was “. . .an American war before it became Bush’s war. . .”) and for its failure:

Yet, labeling Iraq exclusively as an American failure is not enough. Significantly, it was also a European failure that grew out of Europe’s inability to anticipate the war in 2002, to comprehend the U.S. motivation in launching it in 2003, and to respond appropriately in 2004, when it became apparent that the conflict was not about to end even after the U.S.-led coalition had effectively won it. Central to Europe’s failure was its inability to overcome its own divisions about the war and, more widely, on the uses and misuses of U.S. power. (p. 173)

He also questions our forward-looking historical analogies, in particular the idea that as in 1981, when Ronald Reagan succeeded a largely maligned Carter presidency, all that’s needed is a new face in the White House to get a jump on restoring America’s place in the world:

The parallel is less with Reagan in 1981 than with Kennedy in 1961, when most of the crises inherited from the Eisenhower presidency matured quickly and dangerously, thereby imposing on the new administration a foreign policy of confrontation. . . Thus, Kennedy’s new beginning proved to be a false start that introduced an especially demanding and difficult decade. Even assuming the best for 2008, the range of unresolved issues and simmering conflicts—geopolitical, regional, and economic—that looms ahead is similarly daunting. (pp. 176-177)

The implications are significant, since Serfaty claims (and the evidence increasingly seems to bear him out) that the Iraq War signals the pre-mature end of the American unipolar moment and the beginning of the multipolar era. A transition which, by definition, presents particular challenges to American foreign policy:

For a nation that holds a folkloric view of itself, these are Old World ideas that are profoundly distasteful and dismissed as literally un- or even anti-American. This is not a power environment that Americans know, and it is not one they can readily learn to like. Multipolar combinations of power are “undiluted” and thus encumbered with the entangling perplexities warned against by the founding fathers’ admonitions that shaped the republic’s early foreign policy. Not the least of these perplexities is the significance of every dimension of power, meaning that superior military capabilities alone do not suffice to define influence, military inequalities are not enough to create instabilities, and value disparities need not produce insurmountable alliance handicaps or even stand in the way of just wars. (pp. 175-176)

There’s tons more which I resisted the urge to cut and paste, because the article is definitely worth a read in its entirety. If there are any others that you think merit some mention, shoot me some links at judah_worldpoliticsreview_com (just replace the underscores).

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