American soldiers have, for more than 200 years, risked life and limb for their country. The politicians who recruited and sometimes conscripted the soldiers routinely painted military service in glorious terms: You are protecting America—even the entire world.
President George W. Bush continued in this tradition last Veterans Day. The Iraq occupation “is vital to the future security of our country,” he claimed. And not just that of America. He told troops at Fort Bragg that “you are making possible the security of free nations.”
Alas, it isn’t true. In fact, Americans are dying in a conflict that is making the United States and the rest of the world less, rather than more, secure.
Telling the truth about political machinations in Washington and U.S. foreign policy in no way denigrates the service of our troops. In fact, their patriotic loss demands political honesty.
We now know that Baghdad possessed no WMDs and was not involved in terrorist attacks on the United States. Thus, the war was not necessary for American security. It certainly did not make the world more secure.
The occupation is proving to be even worse. The invasion has turned Iraq into a terrorist training ground, creating a cadre of violent jihadists, many of whom are now bleeding back to their home countries.
The longer the occupation, the greater the hostility against America in Iraq and beyond—and the larger the number of potential terrorists created. Sadly, young Americans are dying in a campaign that actually is making their country less safe.
This has forced war advocates to emphasize humanitarian goals, contending that U.S. troops are doing good. But getting rid of Saddam Hussein was not worth 2,000-plus American lives, with so many more likely to follow.
Even granting the humanitarian case for removing a dictator, it does not justify a lengthy occupation. Hussein is out of power, facing trial. That objective has been achieved.
The argument that America is building democracy is much weaker. Set aside the difficulty of creating a genuinely free society without the civil and political institutions necessary for sustaining a stable political order. Global social engineering, no matter how well intentioned, does not warrant sacrificing one’s countrymen.
The President and others have attempted to justify the war by circling back to U.S. security: Our freedom depends on the freedom of others. But there is no reason to believe that regimes grow more pro-American as they become more democratic.
To the contrary, at least in the short term, democracy in such nations as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would likely unleash greater anti-Americanism. That is no reason to stand against democracy, as the United States did during much of the Cold War. However, launching a militarized crusade to force elections in recalcitrant countries is imprudent at best.
What’s left is a moral argument for spreading democracy. Democracy is laudable, but merely one aspect of a free society. Authoritarian, demagogic systems that hold occasional elections do not warrant significant effort by Washington, let alone the sacrifice of American lives.
Even the best intentions do not guarantee the best results. In Iraq, for instance, there is no guarantee that the most liberal constitutional provisions will be enforced; what Iraqi politics will look like even a couple years from now is impossible to know. Americans likely are dying today for something far different from U.S.-style political liberty.
This does not mean that democracy is not worth promoting; it is not worth pursuing through war, however. To say that the occupation of Iraq is not in America’s interest is not to say that the sacrifices made by American servicemen and women are not noble. Rather, it means that their deaths are unnecessary and unjustified.
Indeed, despite the eloquent rhetoric in which conflicts—Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and more—are routinely packaged, the crusade for democracy possesses an ugly underside. There is more than a little whiff of imperialism in the claim that the United States is entitled, unilaterally and coercively, to determine political systems in other nations.
This presumes that Americans have not only the right but the knowledge, understanding, and sophistication to reorder the world. It is hubris on a global scale. The point is not that Americans’ intentions are not good, but that the consequences of war are usually unpredictable and often counterproductive.
“Power tends to corrupt,” intoned British historian Lord Acton, and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” America as sole global superpower is not immune.
For what are Americans dying in Iraq? Nothing that justifies their heroic sacrifice.
We must win, explains President Bush and his allies. In effect, Americans must die to vindicate those who died before pursuing goals that have since been exposed as fraudulent or unrealistic. Political leaders in both parties must not be allowed to hide behind the soldiers whom they have put in harm’s way. We must hold accountable the architects of this misbegotten war.