It is entirely appropriate that the appalling crimes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which openly declares genocidal intentions, have inspired demands for forceful action to destroy the terrorist entity. Impatient politicians and belligerent pundits express frustration with President Obama because he isn’t bombing more sites or dispatching U.S. troops to Iraq or expanding the conflict into Syria — or just heeding their urgent advice, immediately.
Now any or all of those policies may eventually prove necessary, after careful consideration and consultation with America’s allies. But the president would be wiser to do nothing than to simply parrot the prescriptions of his neoconservative critics. And he would be wiser still to keep in mind that the past enthusiasms and errors of those critics are the underlying causes of the predicament that he and the civilized world confront today.
The undeniable reality is that there would be no ISIS (and no crisis) if the dubious neoconservative desire to invade Iraq had been duly ignored in 2003.
A jihadi movement capable of winning support from oppressed Sunni Muslims in that ravaged country arose directly from the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation, under American auspices, of a sectarian Shiite regime. Not only was that regime unwilling to unite Iraqis into a democratic order, but its political allegiance pointed toward Iran rather than the United States.
For anyone who listened to neoconservative “experts” such as William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, these ruinous developments would have come as a wicked surprise. Soon after the U.S. invasion, after all, Kristol had assured us that religious and ethnic divisions among Iraqis would present no significant problems whatsoever. “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America,” he told National Public Radio in April 2003, “that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.”
And the weapons of mass destruction were just around the corner, and the war would pay for itself with Iraqi oil, and the Iranians would rise up next to throw off the mullahs, while the entire Mideast underwent a miraculous transformation under the benign influence of the Bush doctrine, and blah, blah, blah…
By this point, it seems obvious to nearly everyone just how absurdly wrong all those predictions were. Just as salient, however, is that the Iraq war – and the failure of diplomacy that it represents – was the culmination of an enormous squandered opportunity, whose harmful consequences continue today. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the world rallied around the United States, from Europe to Asia; even the Iranians volunteered to help us defeat Al Qaeda.
Instead of assembling an international coalition to confront Islamist extremism – with diplomacy, technology, information, and humanitarian assistance as well as military force – the Bush administration moved against Iraq. By doing so, it alienated nearly all of our allies, forfeited the world’s sympathy, wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, all to create a divided, failed state that now incubates terror.
So when someone like Kristol urges the president to bomb first and think later, as he did recently, the only sane response is bitter laughter. We need sober diplomacy and smart strategy, which President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have vowed to pursue when the United States takes over the leadership of the UN Security Council this month. And we need the patience to muster at last the broad, invincible alliance we could have led against Al Qaeda from the beginning.
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