2008-02-29 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

End Game
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Most people probably agree, these days, that the military invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Whatever you thought at the time (and I was among those who believed it was worth the effort in light of Saddam's actions and the realization of our vulnerability after 9/11), the evidence since has been pretty clear. Forced replacement of a dictatorial tyrant with a liberal democracy sharing our values in the Middle East was simply beyond us. There were plenty who made this argument at the time and they were right.

Of course, no one can see the future, but they guessed right about this while others, the administration included, didn't. If he had it to do over again, I suspect President Bush would have taken a pass. But you don't get do-overs in life and presidents have to choose based on the best available information, though that may not, as we now know, be very good at all. The idea that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction was a notion Saddam had apparently worked hard to project to the rest of the world and he was convincing, at least to our intelligence services - and to many others in the West.

Arguments that the administration distorted or lied about the intelligence will never be put to rest in some quarters, of course, but such claims aren't credible except to partisans and conspiracy theorists. The mistake the Bush administration made was in believing they could pull this off quickly, surgically and effectively - before we and the wider world lost the stomach for the difficulties involved. But the discovery, after the fact, that there really were no WMD to be found undermined everything. The administration had pitched so much of its argument on the threat posed by WMD in Saddam's hands, that the discovery that he had actually had none wiped away any residual recognition that he was an aggressive tyrant who had had it, had used it and clearly was aiming to get hold of it again, and that all of these factors did make him a danger in his neighborhood.

But why should that have mattered to us? The region is a source of oil which fuels our global economy. It's smack dab in the middle of international commercial routes, to boot. The Middle East, indeed, has always stood at the crossroads of international trade. If it's not the most hospitable region in the world, it's still a transport hub with the Suez Canal, in modern times, providing a significant shortcut for ships passing between Europe and Asia. So the Middle East matters in a number of ways and a dictator out to control it cannot be lightly ignored. Still, Saddam was not only a budding hegemonist, he was a bulwark against that other hegemonist, Iran, a bulwark which our intervention removed. There were many who warned against this consequence, too. Although there's no way to really tell what the world would have looked like had we chosen another path (leaving Saddam in place, perhaps, while continuing to worry over his wmd programs and over which of his neighbors he would strike at next), it's clear the current outcome hasn't been a happy one - least of all for the administration whose political enemies have used it as the favorite stick with which to beat it over the head. Worse, it has galvanized the political left within the Democratic Party to such a degree that no Democrat gunning for the presidency today dares suggest, as John McCain has done, remaining in Iraq until the job is done.

But that's just the issue. Whether we would have been better off to have left Saddam in place to continue tyrannizing his people and neighbors, while blocking Iranian expansion (and it's hard not to imagine a nuclear arms race between the mullahs and Saddam in that case), the fact remains that we didn't. Yet, Democratic primary voters are committed to a withdrawal from Iraq no matter what and Hillary Clinton and her nemesis, front-runner Barack Obama, are at pains to demonstrate their anti-war bona fides. Come November our choice will be clear enough. Most likely Obama, but possibly Clinton, will be running for the presidency on a platform of bringing the troops home, reflecting a clear anti-war sentiment among Democrats, an orientation which has spread beyond that party to infect a large part of the rest of the country as well.

There's always been a strong antiwar sentiment in this country. While it hasn't always kept us out of conflicts or held us back from expanding across the continent to the Pacific in the 19th century, it kept us out of most of World War I and might well have done the same during World War II had Japan not attacked us and Germany not followed up by declaring war on us, too. After those conflicts, Vietnam galvanized the modern anti-war movement. Many who forged their political view in the anti-war sixties are at the forefront of this movement today. Although the Democrats actually got us into Vietnam, the anti-war left essentially captured the Democratic Party after Lyndon Johnson stepped down.

But the question we have to ask our- selves as we move toward November is, whether this way of seeing things is viable in today's world. It's true that there is no good reason to like war and, thus, strong reason to want to avoid it. Still, can we always do so and, more importantly, should we? Many argue that our need to act militarily is really only a function of our involvement abroad. If we would only pull back, only mind our own business, foreigners wouldn't dislike us as they do and terrorists wouldn't attack us. After all, should we really care what they do to one another or what happens abroad as long as we're secure on our side of the globe? And it's true that if we could hunker down behind our oceans and ignore the rest of the world we would be safer. The problem, of course, is that we can't.

The U.S. economy and the kind of lives that it makes possible for us are completely dependent on our interrelations with the rest of the world. The jobs we have at home, the money we earn, the things we can buy are all dependent on U.S. prosperity. But we cannot prosper alone. We need trade with others because they buy what we make and we buy what they make. For that we need a stable and prosperous world. But these are at risk, and always are, from those who want to dominate and control others. Well isn't that what we want, too? Isn't a desire to keep the world safe reflective of our urge to dominate and control, too? In a sense it is, but this only means that the geopolitical world, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If we don't fill it, others will. It would be nice to isolate ourselves from the rest of the planet except for when we want to peek out over our oceans for an occasional friendly visit at times of our choosing. But if we do, we might find the rest of the world not quite as friendly as we had hoped. Worse, how would we keep them from visiting us for unfriendly purposes?

More than sixty years after World War II ended we still have troops in Europe and Japan. After the Korean War we still keep troops there. It would be nice to bring them all home but then what is left in their wake? Human beings are always vying for power and influence and if you don't play the game, others will. There's no opting out, even in Iraq where we began something for what appeared at the time to be very good reasons and where we have the potential to leave things better than we found them in Saddam's time - if we stick it out. So come November we're going to have a stark choice: whether to vote to take us back toward isolationism, as demanded by core anti-war Democrats, or to remain engaged, like it or not, to fill a vacuum others would be only too keen to fill in our place. It's like riding a tiger. Hanging on is dangerous as hell but getting off may just get you eaten. rockirreg@aol.com

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