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Regretting The Iraq War

This column was written by Peter Beinart.

"Why, exactly, did you support this war?" asked my wife the other day. A fitting question, since people have been asking it of me and this magazine since we made that disastrous decision more than four years ago. For myself, perhaps the most honest reply is this: because Kanan Makiya did.

When I first saw Makiya — the Iraqi exile who has devoted his life to chronicling Saddam Hussein's crimes — I recognized the type: gentle, disheveled, distracted, obsessed. He reminded me of the South African exiles who occasionally wandered through my house as a kid. Once, many years ago, I asked one of them how the United States could aid the anti-apartheid struggle. Congress could impose sanctions, he responded. Sure, sure, I said impatiently. But what else? Well, he replied with a chuckle, if the United States were a different country, it would help the African National Congress liberate South Africa by force.

If the United States were a different country. For him, the implication was obvious: The United States wasn't that kind of country. It was an anti-revolutionary power with a long pro-apartheid record. The United States didn't liberate countries, at least in the postcolonial world. At best, it stood aside.

I agreed. But, as the years passed and liberals debated war and peace, the phrase kept nagging at me. If the United States were a different country, and not merely motivated by oil, it could be trusted to expel Saddam from Kuwait. If the United States were a different country, one really concerned about human rights, it could be trusted to bomb Slobodan Miloševíc out of Bosnia and Kosovo. At some point during the 1990s, I began to see it as a trap. There were no other, purer methods and no other, purer country. At least, that was how the Kuwaitis and Bosnians and Kosovars and Afghans seemed to feel.

Then Makiya came along, beckoning the United States further. The Gulf War had been mostly about oil; Afghanistan mostly about self-defense. They required little idealism. Bosnia and Kosovo, on the other hand, had been multilateral efforts conducted from 15,000 feet. They required little risk. Makiya was proposing something far more ambitious: a ground war, not to stop an ongoing genocide, but to overthrow a horrific regime. The war did have a national security rationale (although, in retrospect, it collapsed in late 2002 when the United Nations restarted inspections and those inspections found no weapons of mass destruction). But even that was linked to a moral argument, since hawks believed that Saddam, like past totalitarians, might export the cruelty he was inflicting at home. (To some degree, he already had.) That's why Makiya insisted that an Iraq invasion do more than merely replace Saddam with a more pliant Baathist general. In deadly earnest, he was asking the United States to become what that South African exile could not even contemplate without laughing: a revolutionary democratic power. For Makiya's neoconservative allies, the idea was intuitive: In their air-brushed narrative, that's what the United States had always been. But Makiya knew better; he knew that the United States had intervened more frequently in the Third World to quash democracy than to spread it. He knew that the Bush administration had other, darker motives. And yet, made desperate by Saddam's horrors and his resilience, he was willing to gamble.

I was willing to gamble, too — partly, I suppose, because, in the era of the all-volunteer military, I wasn't gambling with my own life. And partly because I didn't think I was gambling many of my countrymen's. I had come of age in that surreal period between Panama and Afghanistan, when the United States won wars easily and those wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought. It's a truism that American intellectuals have long been seduced by revolution. In the 1930s, some grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, some felt the same way about Cuba. In the 1990s, I grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the United States.

Some non-Americans did, too. "All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive," wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, "are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?"

I couldn't answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was an answer, and it was the one I heard from that South African many years ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can't be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That's why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force — because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it's why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time. That's not to say the United States can never intervene to stop aggression or genocide. It's not even to say that we can't, in favorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we're there. But it does mean that, when our fellow democracies largely oppose a war — as they did in Vietnam and Iraq — because they think we're deluding ourselves about either our capacities or our motives, they're probably right. Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United States has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn't have trusted ourselves.

"Why, exactly, did you support this war?" asked my wife. Her sister is an Army brigade surgeon at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, treating kids burned from head to toe. Our toddler niece is in San Antonio, spending the year without a mom. I'll always consider Makiya a hero. But I haven't seen him, or read anything he's said or written, in several years. He's living, and suffering, with the consequences of this war, I suppose. And so are we.

By Peter Beinart
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