The history of American intervention and non-intervention abroad is rather inglorious. Within recent memory, there’s Vietnam, warranted by a flawed domino theory and a resolution (The Gulf of Tonkin) that defrauded the United States Congress, a war riddled with misinformation, disinformation and outright lies. A gunboat or two off the coast at Dubrovnik in 1991 likely would have prevented a set of heartbreaking wars in the former Yugoslavia that went on for years. (And what wars are not heartbreaking?) We have Somalia, with our half-hearted arrival and our humiliating withdrawal. And we have tongue-clucking as our form of intervention — in Cambodia, Rwanda, Uganda and other scenes of mass murder.
Perhaps it will always be so. For now, at any rate, the only coherent theory on which American intervention rests is the defense of our national interest. But since “national interest” is not exactly self-defining, that theory doesn’t take us very far.
Why are we in Iraq? Forget about President Bush and his ever-changing justifications, and forget as well the dark conspiratorial assertions that we are there because of oil. Forget the fact that we are there without international sanction, and forget that the planning for the postwar period was so arrogantly inept that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (at least) should have been cashiered months ago. When I ask why we are there, I mean to ask whether there is a plausible, perhaps even persuasive theory that can justify the effort to oust Saddam Hussein. Imagine (if you can) a war against Hussein and his regime that did have both international sanction and adequate postwar planning; would that war have been acceptable to those (like myself) who are bitterly critical of this war?
I raise the question now for fear that we may soon enough face a post-Iraq complex not all that different from the post-Vietnam complex that inhibited our action for more than a generation. Iraq is going very badly for all (except Halliburton) concerned. The president of the United States has been revealed as either gullible or incompetent or, simply, a liar; the American (and other) soldiers, promised a flowered welcome, have become targets of roadside bombs and suicide bombers; the Iraqis themselves have taken many more casualties, and those whom the shadowy Ba’athists or terrorists or malcontents have defined as collaborators are especially vulnerable. While it may be true that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, there is here a very serious question as to whether we will ever get the promised omelet, the one Tom Friedman of The New York Times keeps hyping. If, in fact, there is none, what conclusion will we derive from the fiasco?
My fear is that we will refuse to organize an intervention when a real genocide threatens again, a Pol Pot-style genocide or a Tutsi-Hutu-style genocide. And that would be the wrong lesson to derive. The fact that the intervention in Iraq has been so badly bungled from the very beginning, that the reasons for going forward were fabricated and that the aftermath was so arrogantly and ineptly prepared, tells us exactly nothing about the next time. It does not tell us whether a war in Iraq on behalf of human rights (not on behalf of alleged weapons of mass destruction), under international auspices, with a real plan for the morning after, would have been warranted. (A friend observes that if human rights is the measure, there are other and worse places, and that may be so. But there can be no coolly logical rule to tell us when “yes” and when “no.” The fact that we cannot intervene everywhere does not, must not, mean that we should intervene nowhere.) But that is plainly not the war we are now fighting.
By shifting the justification for intervention in Iraq from disabling weapons of mass destruction to defending human rights, President Bush and his colleagues stand revealed: It is not only emperors who wear no clothes. They offer no convincing theory of why we are at war. Absent WMDs, our national interest was not immediately threatened. Absent large-scale murder, either ongoing or imminent, even the minimal condition for humanitarian intervention has not been met.
So it is that unless there is now an unexpected turn for the better in Iraq, unless the fighting can be stopped and the electricity and water systems repaired and the hospitals cleaned and supplied and elections held and a constitution that satisfies the divided nation promulgated and implemented, this nightmare will not soon be over — not for Iraq, not for us, not for the peoples that may in years to come plead for our forceful presence. The likely legacy of Iraq is an America the Powerful loathe to use force even when millions are dying and there is no other way, America reduced to a politics of declaration. Fixated on the shabby precedent of Iraq, disabled by an Iraq complex, we will stay home, arms folded.
There is also this: Early on, there were Jews who applauded the American intervention in Iraq. Such a success, they thought, might transform the Israeli-Arab conflict. And they may have been right. But they ought to have considered the possibility of an American failure, of the collapse of American credibility that would mean, of the hatred of America it would spawn, and of the isolationist sentiment in America it would feed. We are not yet at failure, but we are closer to failure — much closer than to success.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).