By lex, on February 20th, 2011
Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich is no fan of the America’s decadal War on Terror. And the man has his reasons, personal and professional. But the author of “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” and “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” may be pressing his point too firmly in his latest Op-Ed ** in the LA Times, concerning the “Arab spring”:
The ongoing upheaval in the Arab world (and in Iran) has rendered a definitive judgment on U.S. policy over the last decade. Relying on their own resources and employing means of their own devising, the people of the Middle East intent on transforming that region have effectively consigned the entire “war on terror” to the category of strategic irrelevance.
When first conceived in the wake of 9/11, two convictions underpinned that war. According to the first, precluding further attacks on the United States meant that the Islamic world needed to change. According to the second, because Muslims were manifestly unable to change on their own, the United States needed to engineer the process, with American military might serving as catalyst. Freedom (or at least submission) would issue from the barrel of a GI’s assault rifle.
In Afghanistan, then Iraq and now, of course, AfPak, U.S. efforts to promote change have achieved — at best — mixed results. Meanwhile, the costs incurred have proved painfully high. In terms of treasure expended, lives lost and moral authority squandered, Americans have paid a lot and gotten precious little in return.
It now turns out that those exertions were unnecessary or, at the very least, superfluous. For nine years, the U.S. has been pushing in on a door that opens outward. More amazing still, that door swings open of its own volition. Events of the last several weeks have made it abundantly clear not only that important parts of the Islamic world are ripe for change but that the impetus for change comes from within. Transformation is not something that outsiders can induce or impose or control. The process is organic, spontaneous and self-sustaining.
It was only yesterday, watching the headlines out of Tehran, Bahrain, Sanaa and Tripoli, that I found myself wondering about the reverse: Would any of this have been possible with Saddam Hussein still in power?
Saddam’s army the most powerful in the Arab world, and his grip on power was the most viciously fierce. Life may be bad in Egypt or Tunisia, a Ben Ali or Mubarak could truthfully state – but at least you’re not living in Iraq. Things could always be worse.
Saddam’s power was based on the ruthless application of force by his security services and Republican guard. These were smashed by the coalition war machine in three and a half weeks, leaving the country a shambles from which is is only tentatively emerging. The Arab world may not have liked to see “freedom” given at the point of a gun, but the sight of that destruction had to be humiliating to a shame/honor culture. The pugnacious refusal of the US to cut and run from the carnage generated by a new breed of foreign pilgrims – these armed with suicide vests – could only salt the wound. When there were at last genuinely free elections in the Arab world – the first ever – they were undertaken under the protective aegis of a hated US military in Iraq, and an even more despised Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza.
Of all the degradations and humiliations of daily life in the slums of Tunis, the dictator Ben Ali could not even protect Mohamed Bouazizi from the indignity of seeing this:
Put another way, if Saddam still sat upon his throne of skulls in 2011, if Ghaddaffi had not renounced his nuclear weapons ambitions in 2003, if the Cedar Revolution had not sent the Syrians packing from Lebanon in 2004, would we now look in wonder upon the protesters in the squares of Egypt and Bahrain?
This should be more of an open question than a begged one, I think.
Professor Bacevich quotes Niebuhr:
“The whole drama of history,” the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, “is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” True when he wrote it more than half a century ago, the passage remains true today, notwithstanding the wonders of computers, iPhones and social networking.
I’m not sure if the liberation of Iraq had much of anything to do with the unrest now ruffling dictatorial Arab feathers. But as someone who can quote Niebuhr on the need for humility when casting a historical lens on present day events, I am not so sure how Professor Bacevich is certain it did not.
* 10-19-2018 Link Gone; no replacements found – Ed.
** 10-19-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.