I've been fumbling around for a reasonable explanation for how I, and so many others, could have been so historically wrong about Iraq. Coming from a military family myself, I'm acutely aware of how disruptive this war has been for so many American families and Iraqi civilians. With no good news on the horizon, a sense of terrible failure has set in, as we grope for the least catastrophic end to this debacle. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers recently nailed it, at least from my perspective:
With at least ten golden years of history behind us, we told ourselves how good we were and convinced ourselves that the blighted Arabs needed our way of life, needed our product. We convinced ourselves that the Middle East was no different than Bosnia. There would be some resistance, but after a show of American power the population would fall into a sluggish acquiescence. Everyone would live happily under the flag of Nike.
Free-market economics, rather than Hobbes, is the driving philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld. He invaded Iraq with 100,000 troops because he believed the "spontaneous forces" latent in Iraq merely had to be tapped into to turn it into New Zealand. Some were a little concerned when we heard this phrase of his, recognizing its Hayekian overtones. We began to suspect that he was a fanatic Friedmanite, treating Iraq like some Libertarian laboratory, applying a philosophy that worked under certain precise circumstances to an irrational place. The light footprint of our military was to a significant extent borne of our better instincts, of a free-market ideology, worse: a do-gooder freemarket ideology. The rough and tough Rumsfeld thought that the U.S. merely had to subtract itself for the most part from a country whose order it had just annihilated, rather than act as a leviathan, providing the necessary security and force.
Having watched free markets sweep across Eastern Europe and Russia, we naturally thought the same would occur in Iraq. And flush with the profound success of our economic philosophy in our own country, we hurriedly grafted it onto a country so benighted, whose culture was so alien to liberal capitalism, that we instead cast it into further moral darkness and depravity. It was a kind of economic five-year plan. Many of us honestly believed that in five or ten year's time, in 2007 or 2012, Iraq would be awash in foreign capital. The historical naivete of the Republicans was breathtaking. Their shrunken time-frame was not conservative, was that of their enemy, a naïve, atheist liberal, of a teenager even.
After 9/11, many of us suffered a type of post-traumatic optimism, so profoundly disgusted and horrified by an attack on our soil that we desperately clung to the belief that we could re-fashion, in our own image, those parts of the world that bred the kind of hateful ideologies out to destroy us. If only these people had the option to live as we did, freely and openly with a respect for market economies devoid of tyrranical dictators or frothing religious bigotry. If only.
Bush & Co. offered a promise that this was possible. A promise so blindingly naive and unlikely that it would take a born-again Christian, or a nation deeply wounded by tragedy, to fall for it. Some of the more stridently anti-war folks out there now demand that each and every one of us who supported the war initially feel eternally guilty for it, personally responsible for every American death, and barring that we should sign up for military service ourselves. I'm not going to flagellate myself for their edification, but I will grant that my conscience is weighted with the knowledge that our mistakes have cost so many innocent lives. I will admit to a temporary form of delusional optimism, a willful suspension of disbelief for the sake of making the world a better place. As the cruel hangover sets in, all we can brace for now is a long, painful journey home.