The old Brechtian adage, that the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line, is a useful reminder for most observers of American politics to pause and reflect on the situation in post-Saddam Iraq. There has been much doubting recently among those who support President George Bush’s bold undertaking in the war on terror about where his policy is now headed after liberating a portion of the Middle East and liberating Iraqis.
The reason for such doubting stems from the perception that as difficulties mounted in Iraq once Baghdad fell, and were compounded by the pictures from Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration began to search for an Iraqi exit strategy. This is unfair to an administration besieged by critics who are more understanding of despots than of people yearning for freedom.
The Arab-Muslim world was never going to accept any nobility of purpose to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And to those on the political Left across much of the world–their politics mindlessly thick with resentment of America and animus towards Bush–nothing can be said or demonstrated that will make them concede that the joy of freedom across Iraq is real.
But those who understood the reason for, and the cost involved in, liberating Iraq should not lose sight of the nature of politics surrounding such an enterprise. There are always constraints in such world-shaping engagements that require temporary accommodation with circumstances that make for the difference between the maximal goal set forth and the minimal objective attainable under existing conditions. The rule here is that other useful cliché: that the best must not be the enemy of the good.
The maximal goal for Iraq remains its full transition to representative government and a constitutional order. Such a transition, if and when it is completed, will be of historic consequence to the Middle East, and set the region in the direction of freedom and economic development.
The minimal objective attainable in Iraq was reached with great efficiency. This was the overthrow of a despot and the dismantling of a brutal regime. The difficult and grinding task of rebuilding Iraq can only be advanced with Iraqis themselves assuming responsibilities for their own future. The Bush administration’s efforts to transfer authority from America as an occupying power to a new and liberated Iraq, however, have not been entirely satisfactory.
But the harping on mistakes made by the Bush administration is exaggerated, partisan, and disingenuous. In a more meaningful sense we can all profit by recalling the wisdom of T. S. Eliot from his poem “The Hollow Men.” Remember the lines: “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow…” Or, again: “Between the conception/And the creation/Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow…”
The “shadow” is perhaps the poet’s enigmatic reference to Providential plans beyond human ken. But the “shadow” might also be read, in our present circumstance relating to Iraq, as the condition of human fallibility despite tremendous scientific and technological advances, and an acknowledgement that the enemy also has a will to confound our best laid plans. In a deeper sense, “shadow” is a reminder to those who have not entirely divested themselves of religious sensibilities that evil exists in our world as a torment for the good, and it is a constituent element of our human condition.
The Bush administration cannot achieve the maximum objective of securing a democratic future for Iraq without the fullest consent and participation of the American people. Such a consensus behind an Iraq policy, measured in years and not weeks, was unachievable owing to divided public opinion and a lack of bipartisan support in the Congress. But the minimum achieved in Iraq this far should not become a casualty of partisan politics and, even as it gets stained with unavoidable quarrels, those who support President Bush’s war on terror and the Iraq policy should not lose sight of his accomplishments.
They can draw lessons from history within living memory. At the Yalta summit in 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, basically yielded to the circumstances on the ground and accepted the cost of a divided Europe and did not pursue the nobler aim and greater objective of a free Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern borders of Poland.
It was questionable then, as Roosevelt pondered the shape of postwar Europe and the world, whether Americans would have stayed united in bearing the cost of liberating all of Europe from the tyranny of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. The Yalta agreement haunted American politics and shaped its foreign policy in the years that followed. The Berlin airlift during its blockade in August 1948 was a message to Europeans behind the Iron Curtain that Americans had not forgotten them, nor entirely abandoned them. From the Roosevelt-Truman administration to the Reagan-Bush administration, for over four decades, Americans remained committed to the goals of eventual freedom for all of Europe.
The maximal objective of “the Great Crusade” for freedom in Europe when launched on D-day 6 June 1944 was compromised with the agreement made in Yalta. But the chill of the Cold War did not diminish the great accomplishments of Roosevelt’s leadership during the war against fascism in Europe. The maximum objective was postponed till another generation of Americans could fulfill the ideals of freedom for that other half of Europe overrun by the Soviet armies in 1945.
Similarly, the conventional view that American policy in Vietnam and south-east Asia was misconceived, and, as a result, ended in defeat, is incorrect. A wider perspective of American engagement in the region and the war eventually lost, despite the terrible human costs to save South Vietnam from Communist rule, provides a more complex understanding of developments there than one narrowly fixated on the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Saigon in early 1975.
The American involvement in southeast Asia–stretching over two decades–provided the critical bulwark for countries grouped together in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to defeat their own versions of Communist-led insurrections and engage in development that has made the region a model of economic success story. It is quite likely that without an American presence in the region during those two crucial decades when Moscow, and later Beijing, supported Communist insurgencies around the world, the cause of freedom might have been lost for several generations of southeast Asians.
The war on terror is as much of a global war as were the previous two world wars and the Cold War, and just as the strategic-tactical considerations of waging each of those wars were different, so are the requirements of the present war with its central fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This war has to be waged with a tactical consideration of proportionate use of force in terms of the strategic purpose of defeating terror and bringing freedom to a people under long years of tyranny. As President Bush has observed, American commanders in Fallujah consulting with Iraqis “determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population, and increase support for the insurgency.”
So long as the American people understand what is at stake in the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will appreciate the difference between the maximal goal and the minimal objective accomplished. They may not want to go the entire distance of transforming the Middle East in the early decades of the 21st century. This will be understandable given the cost required, and the reluctance of “old” Europe to share the burden.
The minimum achieved in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with its consequences reverberating through a region that has remained stuck in varying degrees of unfreedom, should remain irreversible and even grow stronger given the commitments already made by America and its Coalition partners in the war on terror. President Bush may not accomplish all that we would hope, given the local conditions in Iraq and the highly polarized nature of contemporary American politics, yet that which he has already achieved will be a lasting contribution to the cause of freedom in general.
–Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada.