This one – part of Jim Fallows’ series of posts – is one I really should never have held. But I did. I prided myself on a conservatism that understood that democratic norms are only built from within cultures through centuries of conflict and compromise. You cannot remake that overnight. Partly, I was overly influenced by the new democracies of Central Europe – but I should never have listened to the apolitical utopianism of the neocon right or the liberal hawks, even though many of them may have meant well. I sure did. But moral certainty combined with historical ignorance is not a prudential position. Here’s Fred Kaplan telling it like it is:
Ten years later, it’s clear that the Iraq war cast “a very large shadow” indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity’s natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.
As we see in Syria and Iraq, the imperial borders of the region make a mockery of thinking of it as post-Soviet Europe, and the intervention was bound to unsettle things further. Back to Kaplan:
The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically “natural” sectarian divisions? There have been many such alternative-maps proposed over the years, none of them quite alike, which raises the possibility that the definition of “natural” borders may itself be a contentious matter, likely to set off its own disputes or wars. Will these new borders conform to the results of these new battles? (Borders, like histories, are usually drafted by the winners.)
Or will it simply unleash a new round of warfare and ethnic conflict? The Iraq war, in retrospect, may be seen as breaking more than a country, but an entire region. As someone once put it:
Those who in the Elysian fields would dwell.
Do but extend the boundaries of hell.
(Photo: An Iraqi searches for body parts in a pool of blood and sewage at the site of a powerful car bomb which exploded in a Baghdad market, 06 May 2007. The blast sent shrapnel scything through a crowd in the Bayaa neighbourhood, a mainly Shiite district lying on one of the city’s many dangerous sectarian faultlines, killing at least 20 people and wounding 45 more. By Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty.)