An Iraqi mourner waves an old flag of Iraq during the funerals of victims killed in clashes with security forces in Falluja, January 26, 2013. Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani
The tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq is upon us, and we are invited to assess the result. An unbroken record of waste, futility and shame presents itself to the retrospective view. There was the passage by Congress of the dangerously vague and elastic Authorization for Use of Military Force in place of the congressional declaration of war the Constitution requires. There was the infamous day the “shock and awe” campaign was unleashed, when a great and ancient city was bombarded as a world that overwhelmingly rejected the attack watched in helpless dismay—a day that burns in memory as one on which a long-premeditated crime occurred in broad daylight. There were the flimsy deceptions and self-deceptions by which the war was rationalized to the American Congress, the American people, the United Nations and the world—the false allegations that Iraq’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. There was the culpable, willful credulity with which these allegations were accepted by the craven US news media. There was the jingoistic, cheerleading coverage of the ground invasion. There were the Iraqi prisoners led around on leashes like dogs at Abu Ghraib. There were the Iraqi death squads and torture squads allied with and advised by the United States—and, if current reports are right, directly sponsored by the United States. There was the surprising, protracted failure of the occupation to restore even basic services, such as electricity, water and sanitation. Above all, there were those who lost their lives for nothing—the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians (many more, if you count excess deaths, direct and indirect, caused by the invasion and occupation) and the more than 4,400 American soldiers.
The only offsetting gain was the downfall of the dictator Saddam Hussein, but that, in turn, has been offset by the eruption of sectarian savagery that has waxed and waned and waxed again in the years of American domination, and is now becoming a regional scourge. Today, the Shiite majority sits precariously at the top of the heap with the help of a repressive apparatus; Sunni rebels inflict scores of deaths weekly in bombing attacks; and the Kurds increasingly go their own way in the north, threatening a messy, violent partition of the country.
Is there any benefit to be found in this record? Only if, it seems, by drawing lessons from the disaster, we can avoid future misadventures of a like kind. One lesson that may be on its way to acceptance is that in our postcolonial era, “COIN” (counterinsurgency) warfare is a fool’s game. A related lesson is that neither the United States nor any other country can “build” other peoples’ nations. Those peoples have to do that by themselves, or fail by themselves. But these lessons are hardly new; they were taught at terrible cost a half-century ago by the Vietnam War. They were then unlearned in preparation for the “regime change” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
How is it, then, that President Obama frequently threatens to attack another Middle Eastern country, Iran? To understand this, we need to unearth and learn another lesson of the Iraq War—one more timely yet more hidden than the lesson of counterinsurgency. The intervention in Iraq was proposed, and the prospective one in Iran is proposed, in the name of a common cause: stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. Both interventions are or will be expressions of the same profound strategic mistake: the policy of trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms and other WMD with military force. We may wonder to what extent the Bush administration believed its own propaganda about the Iraqi threat, but it remains a fact of history that this justification was used to sell the war to Congress and the public and that this justification proved persuasive to so many Americans, including a majority in Congress.
The idea of unburdening countries of their nuclear facilities through military action—“counterproliferation,” in the strategic jargon—actually predates the invasion of Iraq. The first historical instance of it was Israel’s air attack in 1981 on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak. Then, in 1993, in a widely forgotten crisis, the Clinton administration drew up plans (named the “Osirak option” after the Israeli precedent) to attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities and perhaps its conventional armed forces as well. (The crisis ended without the use of force when former President Jimmy Carter intervened to broker a deal.)
It is not an accident that Israel either launched or supported four pre-emptive attacks on nuclear or allegedly nuclear facilities: the one on the Osirak reactor; the US invasion of Iraq; the strike on a Syrian reactor in September 2007; and, now, the possible strike against Iran’s nuclear program. For Israel has followed a policy never adopted by any other nuclear power: it seeks to maintain, by military means, sole possession of nuclear weapons in its region. (The policy is not officially articulated, owing to another remarkable Israeli innovation in nuclear policy: the government’s silence regarding all aspects of its large nuclear arsenal.) In all other regions, there are nuclear competitors who seek to maintain some sort of balance among themselves.
It is true that the idea of maintaining a nuclear monopoly by pre-emptive attack was entertained by the United States during the brief period of its nuclear monopoly, from 1945 to 1949 (when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb), but it was always firmly rejected. It’s fair to say that it was never seriously considered by President Truman. When China developed a nuclear weapons program, the United States and the Soviet Union explored, both separately and jointly, the idea of a pre-emptive strike on China’s nuclear facilities, but the idea was always dismissed, again without serious consideration. The other nuclear powers of the day, France and England, never contemplated such a policy. Nor, as far as we know, have the world’s other two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, considered military action to de-nuclearize the other either before or after they became nuclear powers.
It wasn’t until 9/11 happened that Israel found, in the United States, an imitator of its pre-emptive nuclear policies. In a quiet but epic reversal of American nonproliferation strategy, which had previously been founded on diplomacy and treaties (including above all the worldwide Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), President George W. Bush adopted a policy of forcible nonproliferation—of “disarmament war,” as I have called it—and installed it at the very core of the foreign policy revolution he proposed at the time.
The context was, of course, the “global war on terror.” The “war on terror” and counterproliferation intersected, the administration explained, at the “crossroads of radicalism and technology,” the “nexus of terror and weapons of mass destruction” (in the words of the seminal strategic document of 2002, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America), a location inhabited by that most fearsome personage in the terrorism lineup, the terrorist with a nuclear bomb. (This loathed character has also had a central role, not coincidentally, in arguments in favor of torture.) A whole raft of conclusions followed, as if logically: if the need was for pre-emption, then obviously one could not wait until the threat materialized in the form of the finished WMD: strikes on precursor facilities would be required. And if mere preparations for WMD had to be the occasion for war, then war could be launched on the basis not of any aggressive deeds, but of mere intelligence estimates of those preparations. Furthermore, if the cure was to be thorough, destruction from the air would not be enough. Invasion and occupation—regime change—would be needed. All of this was embraced by the Bush administration and accepted by mainstream opinion.
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The fusion of the nonproliferation cause and the “war on terror” militarized the former even as it lent the latter an apocalyptic underpinning that this radical bid for global American hegemony otherwise would have lacked. Counterproliferation was to the “war on terror” what the domino theory had been to the Vietnam War during the Cold War—the long string of vividly imagined failures that led one after another to total defeat. All the urgency of nuclear danger (“the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” as Bush warned at the time) was superadded to the already intoxicating brew mixed by the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attacks, the war in Afghanistan and so forth.
The offspring of this union was the Iraq War. It was to be both act and warning—both removal of a concrete danger and demonstration to the world of what awaited governments that sought WMD in defiance of American wishes or that otherwise displeased the United States.
What happened next is perhaps the most peculiar chapter of the story. When the alleged WMD were not found in Iraq, the war was discredited. But the momentous change in policy that had led to the war—the change from diplomacy and agreements to force as the means for achieving nonproliferation—went unchallenged, even unnoticed. Curiously, the factual mistake regarding the war aims spared the policy the examination such a momentous shift should have received.
Perhaps that’s one reason Barack Obama could adopt that policy virtually without revision and apply it lock, stock and barrel to Iran. Obama did throw out much that his predecessor embraced. He ended the US combat role in Iraq and is winding it down in Afghanistan. He did away with the term “global war on terror” and a lot of the grandiose rhetoric it occasioned. But he quietly retained, seemingly without questioning it, the steel frame of the counterproliferation policy that Bush had placed at the core of his “war on terror.” In perhaps no arena is the continuity of Obama’s policy with Bush’s greater than in this one.
With Iran, that has placed Obama somewhere on a ladder of escalating coercion and force that leads, if push comes to shove, to war. He can ease up or he can increase the pain (Iran is “in a world of hurt,” he said a year ago), but he cannot easily get off the ladder.
Wholly unsurprisingly, Israel, the pioneer in the use of force to roll back weapons of mass destruction, pushed Obama at every turn during the election, with its politically powerful supporters in the United States, to commit himself to military action. And Obama did. First, he categorically ruled out a Cold War solution (deterrence and containment) to a nuclear-armed Iran: “My policy is not containment; my policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.” His reason was that the cause of nonproliferaton was too important to do otherwise. He feared that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon “that could trigger an arms race in the region, it would undermine our nonproliferation goals, it could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists.”
Second, he was prepared to use force rather than allow Iran to go nuclear: “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power…and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.” And for good measure, he added, ”I don’t bluff.” Those were serious commitments of the prestige of the president and the United States. Like all such public ultimatums, they will be hard to unravel or evade if the contingencies they envision ever arrive.
They indeed have an unnerving resemblance to another Washington conundrum: the budget sequester. Like the sequester, a vow of war against Iran has the look of a dangerous, self-created trap, a disaster for yourself and others that you place in your own path in order to push yourself to do something more sensible—and which, when it turns out to be unachievable, propels you into the abyss.
Yet at the same time that Obama vows war, he shows every sign, with abundant reason, of wishing to back off, to leave as much leeway as possible at the brink, to escape from the war trap he has made for himself. He seems to struggle to free himself from the handcuffs that, under political pressure, he has placed on his own hands. In all likelihood, he understands the reasons that stopped previous presidents as well as the leaders of other nuclear powers from going to war to stop unwanted nuclear programs in other countries.
First, of course this president, who prides himself on winding down two wars, knows the likely immense human cost of a war with Iran, a conflict that would be bloodier than the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War combined, draw in a multitude of other powers, including great powers, and tip the world economy into a new recession or a depression. Second, he surely knows that while an air attack on Iran might set back its nuclear program, there is no reason to think it could stop it. And certainly Obama knows that the only military step that guarantees lasting disarmament (namely ground invasion followed by regime change and lasting occupation) is as unworkable as it would be intolerable to American and world opinion—in a word, deranged. Whatever Obama’s faults, a tendency to insanity is not among the qualities of this calm, controlled man.
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Indeed, in an interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Obama displayed an unmistakable, if muted, awareness of the folly of military action. He reiterated his avowal that the option of force is on the table. But then he seemed to argue against it. “Our argument,” he said, “is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa.”
Those countries, of course, gave up their nuclear programs through voluntary national decisions, not because force was used against them. The clear impression the president leaves is that of a man caught on an escalator leading to a disastrous landing he does not wish to reach but does not yet quite know how to avoid. The framework of his policy greases the path toward war; but his instincts, it seems, pull him in the opposite direction.
It’s still possible that Iran and the United States will reach some compromise permitting a restricted uranium enrichment program. Negotiations are now under way to explore this possibility. But it’s also possible that Iran will call the bluff of this president who says he does not bluff. It is then that the lessons of that exercise in pointless brutality, the Iraq War, should be heeded to protect the United States, Iran, the Middle East and the world from a second, and greater, avoidable catastrophe. The war in Iraq that began ten years ago would then at last serve a good purpose. It would stop the next war.
Read Peter Van Buren on “Why the Invasion of Iraq Was the Single Worst Foreign Policy Decision in American History” (originally on TomDispatch.com).