Afghanistan was the good war. The United States was clearly pursuing its national interest by deposing a Taliban-led government that gave Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda the safe-haven from which they launched the 9/11 attacks. Side-benefits included freeing the Afghan people from a regime that performed soccer stadium executions and imprisoned women for being the victims of rape.
The war in Iraq could be faulted as a “war of choice.” President Bush, instead of continuing to pursue a policy of containment of Saddam Hussein, chose Iraq as the place to reshape the international battlefield with Al Qaeda. If a democracy could be created in the heart of the Arab Middle East, among a well-educated population with rich oil reserves, then the lie of the West’s war against Islam could be exposed for all to see. We would create allies by ridding the Iraqi people of a tyrant who was, in the NY Times’ Thomas Friedman’s opinion—and most of the world’s—a one-man weapon of mass destruction.
For the record I believe that that the Bush administration sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, or that he was well on his way to doing so and would have no compunction about sharing the technology with Hamas, whose suicide bombers were being funded by Saddam. I also believe, though, that President’s Bush’s chosen geo-political strategy provided a lens through which to see the intelligence about these weapons.
As someone who supported the war at the time, I remember seeing Colin Powell’s presentation before the U.N. and thinking, “They don’t have anything like those photographs of the missile installations that Kennedy had during the Cuban missile crisis, do they?”
A wise man once told me that just because a variety of factors go into making a decision, some in tension with one another, doesn’t mean that any of those considerations are necessarily unreal. I don’t think Bush or his administration lied about their weapons of mass destruction convictions. They also thought the war made sense for strategic reasons as well. Both were probably true in their minds and colored the evaluation of each.
The Bush administration made a bet, though—which the Obama administration has continued playing—that democratic institutions could trump a theocratic faith, Islam, that is hostile to democracy.
The results in Iraq have been at best mixed and are likely to deteriorate. For now, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites have gamed each other’s tribalism through the ballot box. The longer this has gone on the more the regnant Shiites have exerted strongman controls, while the Kurds have holed up, relishing their relative independence. Crucial decisions about the flow of oil revenues still have not been made, however. In Iraq, democracy is coming to mean little more than a tribal stalemate that’s unlikely to endure.
In Afghanistan the democratic institution versus Islamic culture gamble has proven even less successful. Now that we have announced our withdrawal as of 2014, the exodus of American troops has become the predicate for the maneuvers of the Taliban, the Karzai government, and the mischief-making Pakistanis.
With Pakistan, a nuclear-state, to the south and east, and Iran to the west, stability in Afghanistan, even under a corrupt Karzai government, has value, especially when the clear is the Taliban.
It’s time to admit, though, that the democratic institution versus Islamic culture bet is a loser. The fundamental roots of every culture go back to its cult—its religion—and Islam, in its purest form, is profoundly hostile to democracy. The motivating idea of Islam is that there should not be a division between church and state—at all. We can talk about “moderate Islam”and Turkey emerging as a modern state, etc., and wish for those forces to emerge as the true representatives of Islam, but theologically that’s like wishing for Unitarians to emerge as the true representatives of Christianity. Conservative strains in Islam have much the better of the theological argument. Read their texts. You can only be a moderate Muslim by ignoring central elements of the faith.
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