We have reached a crucial turning point in American history. The November elections and current polls have made clear that Americans have soured on the Iraq war, and want the troops to be withdrawn rapidly. One question now is how best to try to influence the new Congress to act successfully to help end, if not the complex of war, revenge and banditry now swirling through Iraq, then at least direct American participation. But that question cannot be tackled in isolation.
Because the war — and the “war on terror” in general — have brought America’s reputation for competence, justice and humanity to a new low, through the debate on the war we have reached a rare “teachable moment.” The assumptions that that have surrounded America’s military posture ever since World War Two can now be brought into public question as never before. This opportunity is not to be missed. If it is the chances are that the failures in Iraq will be accounted for as mere errors in planning or execution. Pressure for further unwise and unwarranted military adventures will continue unabated.
On the whole, Americans, and even most of their Congresspeople — not to mention the President — remain remarkably uninformed about the rest of the world. As a nation, our attention is focused inward, to an extent that most of the rest of the advanced world probably cannot match, if only because so much of their attention is focused on us. Even today, after nearly four years of war and occupation in Iraq, how many Americans can differentiate it from Iran?
Most Congresspeople won that position after serving in state or local office — hardly a route that rewards any special understanding of the rest of the world. Once they get to Washington, they find themselves overwhelmed by lobbyists and others who want to influence them in a particular parochial direction, not impart general global knowledge or wisdom. (Recently, the Congressional Quarterly journalist Jeff Stein interviewed Silvestre Reyes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman designate. Among other things, Reyes did not know which of al Qaeda and Hezbol’lah was Sunni, which Shi’ite. When pressed, he guessed wrong. This may not be the most important quiz question in the world, but it is rather germane to deciding how to handle some of the critical issues we face in Iraq and the Middle East in general. )
Still, while Congresspeople are more expert in domestic issues, that does not mean they are neutral when it comes to Defense Department appropriations and support of the military. Ever since World War II’s expenditures helped lift the country out of the Great Depression, and incidentally made the US by far the world’s dominant military and industrial power, keeping that supremacy has been tied to keeping domestic jobs and maintaining “the economy.” The very idea of “national defense” has lent some sense of unity to an otherwise possibly fractious country.
A huge military has been taken to be a vital necessity as well as a source of pride, but what it is for is much less asked. There has to be some sort of default answer, of course; if we were apparently without enemies the giant force would eventually come to seem a senseless and unimportant use of substantial funds. In essence, every so often the Pentagon’s backers are faced with a situation of “use it, or lose it.” However, Americans’ general lack of curiosity about the world makes it easy to conjure up opponents, with only an occasional small war or military action needed to prove the point, couple with a much rarer fuller display of the military’s vaunted power. For most of the time since 1945, the Cold War against international Communism centered in Moscow neatly supplied the main bogeyman. But it has been fifteen years since the fall of the USSR. The supposed “clash of civilizations” with Islam came as a godsend to those many who have reasons to favor continued huge military investments. That led directly to the Iraq invasion. There was simply nowhere else that America’s huge military could with remote plausibility get any kind of a real workout.
The visibility of Iraq debacle thus provides a huge and rare opportunity to challenge the country’s basic assumptions about the military. Already among the neo-cons, it is being bruited about that the war was fought with the wrong “doctrine.” Had we just used the right instruction book, we would have gotten the whole vast toy to work properly. In truth, the very idea that we should or can fight “global jihad,” or what the neo-cons are now beginning to style a “global insurgency,” needs to be debunked.
The US’s real power in the world has been economic and cultural. Today that influence is not strengthened but undercut by our world-faring military. Having supposedly overpowering might does us absolutely no good and a great deal of harm. It leads us to mess with what is none of our business. The global jihad is a phantom largely of our own making; if we fail to pump it up, it will diminish. Being an exemplary world citizen is a much better course for this country, in every respect. That will not rid us of all enemies, but it will assure us many more friends.
If we want to avoid future Iraqs, we had better understand the rareness of this “teachable moment,” when the country is forced to look outward and does not like what Bush’s adventurism has led us to. It will not do simply to advocate a troop pullout. We must strongly make the case as to why the war was so utterly wrong, and why America’s basic assumptions about being the world’s sole superpower are dangerously mistaken. If we don’t, we can leave the impression that Iraq was a mere aberration, poorly planned and unnecessarily botched in execution. That is likely to lead, in just a few years, to another war intending to prove this hypothesis, and so on, to worse and worse.
Among the underlying assumptions that got us into Iraq were:
1. The 9/11 attack was military in nature and could only be answered militarily;
2. It makes sense for the US military to roam all over the world, in support of US “interests;”
3. As the world’s sole superpower it is our right to make sure nations are not developing “weapons of mass destruction (it turned out Iraq wasn’t, but if it had been the war would still have been a mistake as well as a crime);
4. The US should enforce our standards of what a decent society is by military means.
These assumptions have never made sense, and they certainly do not now. They assure that the US will suffer disdain and ignominy, that there will be needless attacks against us, that no reasonable system of world law can ever be established, that internally we will be stuck with a counterproductive fortress mentality, and eventually that we will face clear decline as a society.
Instead of accepting these wrong assumptions, wee should be a wholesale reform of our military and foreign policy including, though not limited to the following elements.
Become an exemplary world citizen by:
a. cooperating with the growing sphere of international law and international courts of justice; dedicating much of our currnt military strength to international bodies for use for humanitarian purposes such as responding to natural disasters, helping refugees get to safety, keeping cross-border invasions form occurring, and aiding regional efforts to prevent gross human rights violations;
b. Paying out reasonable amounts of foreign aid for purley civil purposes, especially in such fields as health, human rights, workers’ rights, education, environmental help, including fighting global warming anti-corruption help; help in holding fair elections and maintaining a vibrant free press and fair judiciary;
c. Being a model at home in these same terms — improving our own democracy, revising our penal system to make it less punitive, being exemplary in terms of supporting diversity and assuring equality; greatly strengthening fair labor standards, raising minimum wages, developing green industries;
d. Replacing expenditures on arms and military bases by non-miltary expenditures that improve the country and are handed out in the same locales, so that almost no one suffers from the needed reduction in military spending.
This whole effort can be aided by Congressional hearings, beginning now. In addition, these hearings ought to examine how we got on the wrong course, and especially who was responsible for the most egregious excesses of the current “war on terror.” We must close the Guantanamo prison and others like it, and make amends to those wrongly treated anywhere and everywhere.