Whenever neoconservatives speak about the bounties that endless wars of “liberation” will provide, I am reminded of a Jonah Goldberg column from 2002, expounding upon the many upsides of invading Iraq:
The most compelling substantive reason, from my point of view, is that Iraq should be a democratic, republican country, with individual rights secured by a liberal constitution. (My preferred governmental model is something along the lines of the Swiss confederation, with Kurds, Shiites, and Arab-Sunnis each having considerable internal autonomy but a shared national government. The country is already split in three parts by the U.S.- and British-imposed no-fly zones anyway.) A democratic Iraq with free-market institutions and the rule of law sounds pretty far-fetched, but it sounded pretty far-fetched for Japan and Germany too. The United States, with the help of its allies, pulled that off.
Goldberg’s claims were quickly proven to be disastrously wrong. (And not just Goldberg’s.) Yet such prognostications were taken at face value by some of the most important people in the world at the time.
Hence, when the United States went on its historic 21-day jog into Baghdad, everyone applauded (remember, 72 percent of Americans supported the Iraq War in 2003). To compound matters, the history that Goldberg (and the other neocons) relied upon was, as too often is the case with these “experts,” lacking all context.
The neoconservatives were accurate when they suggested early on that Iraq could be governed by a Swiss-style confederation, which would empower the regional Kurdish, Shiite, and Arab-Sunnis at the expense of an all-powerful central government in Baghdad. In fact, this was precisely what then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden argued in a controversial New York Times article in 2006. But for whatever reason, the neocons decided to pile on Biden for his beliefs.
Of course, Biden was right.
Think about that. Had the George W. Bush Administration listened to Joe Biden, the world likely would have been better off today.
Another galling claim from the neocons was that the U.S. effort in Iraq was similar to its postwar reconstruction endeavors in Japan or Germany. In both the cases of Japan and Germany, the countries had already been experimenting with forms of democracy long before the rise of either the Nazis in Germany, or the militarists under Hideki Tojo in Japan. In fact, the people of Germany and Japan had elected the Nazis and the militarists into office.
As early as World War I, the German parliament had considerable say in imperial governance. According to Adam Tooze, the democratically elected German parliamentarians (until 1916) were more hawkish about waging World War I than even the kaiser and his generals were! By 1917, the kaiser had promised still more democratic reforms as the war progressed.
As for the Japanese, the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), which reformed Japan from a feudalistic society (ripe for bullying by the European colonial empires and the United States) into a first-rate world power, also created a form of democracy in Japan. While the emperor’s standing was maintained, the Japanese Diet—Japan’s democratically elected legislature—was created to govern the country at the time. In fact, Japan’s constitutional monarchy was based on Germany’s. These democratic institutions were organically formed. So when the Americans defeated the Axis powers in World War II, at least there was a democratic precedent for reconstruction. That wasn’t the case in Iraq (or really anywhere else in the Arab Middle East). Iraqis had known nothing except monarchy and tyranny.
And let’s not forget the role of total warfare and the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender in World War II. The fact is, America’s grand strategy obliterated the German and Japanese infrastructure along with the legitimacy of their regimes. There was no sense of a “lost cause” among the Germans or Japanese. They were eager, in fact, to put those sordid days behind them. It helped, too, that their surrender made the populations almost entirely dependent on the Americans for the postwar order.
That didn’t happen with Iraq.
When the Americans invaded, the country was already a wreck under Saddam’s scleroitc rule and a decade of onerous sanctions. The United States went in with no clear concept either of an occupation or a reconstruction. But even if Washington had planned for both, the Iraqis lacked the culture, history, and temperament for democracy—which is why they are sliding back into a Islamist form of totalitarian rule.
That’s the upshot of more than 15 years of America’s “freedom agenda” for the Middle East: destitution, resentment, contempt, tyranny, and trillions of dollars in debt. The winners were the very same forces the United States had committed itself to defeating: Islamists of both the Sunni and Shiite varieties. The policies that the supposed “experts” at National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary promoted managed to strengthen our enemies and corrode American foreign policy.
As Tallyrand said of the Bourbons, our neocons have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Today these same “intellectuals” advocate more expansive forms of humanitarian warfare. Everywhere from Syria to Nigeria is a potential target for American militarism. It’d be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the neocons remain hugely influential not only in Washington, D.C. generally but even within the Trump Administration.
In draining the swamp, Trump must destroy the “military-intellectual complex” undergirding the Republican Party’s foreign policy establishment. If he doesn’t, the most flawed assumptions about American foreign policy will persist, and the United States could very well find itself mired in three or four more meaningless, unwinnable wars.