National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

Iraq exposes limits of empire

There is irony to the current state of U.S. involvement in Iraq. The Bush administration’s world unilateralists went to war there to assert U.S. will and military might. Bush promised nothing less than to reshape the political maps of the Middle East, disregarding thousands of years of complex cultures, languages and religious histories.

Six months after the invasion, rather than showing the effectiveness of U.S. military might, the Bush team has revealed its limits. It has played into the hands of every terrorist with a grudge against the United States. It has also sadly disappointed those Iraqis who had hoped for so much more from the United States.

In Iraq, U.S. arrogance has fostered a massive miscalculation. Those open arms our troops were supposed to find have turned out to be hands wielding grenade launchers and putting together ever more sophisticated bombs. Meanwhile, we learn what the Bush planners failed to take into account: There are simply too many oil and water pipelines, too many electric towers and too many “soft” targets, such as, hotels and government buildings, for U.S. troops to secure lasting a peace and stability.

Iraq has become the terrorist breeding ground the Bush administration claimed it was before the invasion. Only now young American soldiers provide easy targets for al-Qaeda and other anti-American operatives.

One would think that the current state of Iraqi chaos would cause the Bush neocons to pause and reassess. Already the neocons are being humiliated, though they will be the last to admit it. They’ve had to swallow hard to ask the United Nations they once snubbed to supply peacekeeping forces in Iraq. More humiliation will likely follow.

Meanwhile, the attitude of America’s traditional European allies in the wake of U.S. calls for military assistance has been: “It’s your war. Live with it.”

Curiously, the strain of U.S. hubris that has so diseased our nation’s foreign policy brings with it a kind of blindness, beginning with an inability for self-reflection.

Such self-reflection might have allowed room for basic questions. You have to forgive the Middle East’s intellectuals who are skeptical of stated U.S. intentions to build a democratic Iraq. Everywhere you look in the Islamic world the United States supports autocratic, non-democratic governments. Why change now?

Will lessons from our Iraqi experiences be learned? Not likely, it seems. Vietnam should have taught us to avoid guerrilla wars at all costs. Yes, Iraq is a type of guerilla conflict. Vietnam should have taught us to give special weight to cultural, historic and religious factors, to say nothing of basic ethnic and national pride. Vietnam should have taught us that wise leaders lead by example rather than by sheer military force. In Vietnam, aid efforts were drowned out by helicopter gunships, napalm and a U.S. assassination program.

The current blindness of the Bush team means that greater humiliations stand in our path. As the enormous dimensions of the Iraqi debacle come home to a confused and fearful American public, the nation will be forced into deeper self-reflection. Let’s hope the process will include room for examining the roots of Middle East antagonism against the United States.

Washington’s current rhetoric insults intelligence. Bush frequently likes to point a finger at our nation’s growing ranks of enemies and say they oppose freedom. Such a woefully inadequate analysis dooms us all to greater foreign policy failures. It also misses fleeting opportunities to assert our nation’s higher values, those built upon understanding of human decency and rights, not empire building.

At some point, regrettably, it seems, many months down the current hopeless path, U.S. policy makers will be forced to this introspection. We will all be forced to ask questions as we retreat from Iraqi sands. Unfortunately, this change of course will only come after countless more deaths and countless more billions of dollars in wasted spending.

During the Vietnam war a generation back, the Vietnamese would say they knew all along they would be the eventual winners -- because the war was being fought on their soil. They also knew that the final decisions regarding the war would emerge from the American public. The Vietnamese had confidence that ordinary American people would right their wrongs and force their government out of Vietnam.

Many Iraqis, no doubt, have pondered the Vietnam war and possibly drawn similar conclusions.

The United States has the mightiest military in the world, but this comes to little use when its leaders are blinded by their own grand and unattainable schemes set in empire- building. The wiser course is to understand and live within one’s limits.

The world cries out for healthy U.S. leadership. What it is getting instead is a sick and self-defeating foreign policy that is missing the human family’s deepest aspirations for the 21st century. Such is the tragedy of Iraq.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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