The last person I wanted to hear from this week was Tony Blair.
Wednesday (July 6) was Eid al-Fitr, after all, the Muslim holiday marking Ramadan’s end. But who can focus on celebrating when there is so much mourning to be done?
Omar Mateen shot up a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing dozens. Islamic State terrorists assaulted the same airport in Istanbul, Turkey, I’d flown out from the day before. Then there was the hostage taking in Dhaka, Bangladesh, what’s turned out to be the worst ever bombing in Baghdad, and three separate attacks on Saudi Arabia including a shocking suicide bombing outside the tomb of the prophet Mohammed.
If there’s one thing these attacks have in common, it’s Iraq—or, rather, it’s what has happened to Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003. The invasion of Iraq constitutes the second act in a war on terror that seems to have produced one calamity after another. I’m with Jean Edward Smith when he calls Operation Iraqi Freedom the worst foreign policy decision in American history.
Maybe British history, too.
After years lurking on the edge of the spotlight, Tony Blair is front and center again due to the release of the long-awaited Chilcot Report, a spectacularly thorough, 6,000-page examination of the causes and consequences of Britain’s participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Blair has previously apologized for the Iraq war, but it’s a qualified apology. What we did not hear this week, and haven’t heard in the 13 years since the invasion began, is acknowledgment by Western leaders that their ill-fated actions had incredibly far-reaching consequences. We certainly haven’t heard anything even approaching remorse from former US president George W. Bush. Our ex-president still seems to believe that the Iraq War was too brilliant a decision to be appreciated from a close temporal distance. Let several decades pass, enough time for the the memories of the victims to fade. Maybe then we’ll all remember it differently.
I can hardly think of a better definition of white privilege. The entire religion of Islam is held responsible for a terrorist movement that seems perfectly content to kill large numbers of Muslims. And yet the people who played a direct role in creating the security vacuum into which extremism emerged have faced no meaningful accountability whatsoever.
At the very least, the United Kingdom is having a public debate about this very bad decision. But what about us in America? It seems likely that we will be led down this same road again if we do engage in a proper accounting of what happened, who erred, and why.
Since our officials seem uninterested in public soul-searching, I’ve compiled a short list of my own. Think of it as a handy checklist for the next time we think about invading a sovereign nation.
First, we should ask what Jesus would do.
Before embarking on any war, we as a nation should ask if we are comfortable with the same kind of conflict, albeit with the roles reversed. Many in the Arab and Muslim world have legitimate reasons to perceive the United States as an aggressive power. Should any of these nations one day become a superpower, would we as Americans be comfortable with their adopting our current principle of preemptive war?
Second is what I like to call the Dwight Schrute test. “Before I do anything,” the underrated foreign policy analyst and political commentator once said, “I ask myself: ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing.”
Who amongst us honestly believes that George Bush or Tony Blair believed Iraq represented an existential threat great enough to warrant the circumvention of international law and institutions? This is a country that had already suffered heavily during the Iran-Iraq war, the First Gulf War, and was laboring under wicked sanctions. The country was so broken down by the time we got there it was unable to offer even token resistance. We were told a nation we had bullied and bombed would welcome us with open arms. And yet there was literally no plan for the day after. (But don’t just take my word for it, journalist after journalist has catalogued the embarrassing mess we made of things.)
Third, practice self-care.
On Twitter, David Frum, once the spokesperson for the Bush administration, responded to the Chilcot Report with a chilling lack of empathy. Frum had the gall to claim that Iraqis “chose” the sectarian war that followed the invasion—as if civilians can be held responsible for the actions of a violent and illegal overthrow of its government, the collapse of its security services, the disbanding of its military, and the failure by its occupying powers to secure its borders.
This may come as a shock to men like Frum, but Iraqis and Middle Easterners wanted very badly to prevent the infiltration of jihadist forces. And now, of course, their problem has become our problem. Rather than extending American dominance, as many have argued, the Iraq War precipitated our decline, destabilized the Middle East, and opened the door to the rise of new powers.
One could also argue the rise of ISIL has led to, among other things, paralysis in and then the retreat of the European Union. There is a certain rueful irony in the issue of refugees, and violence by jihadists, being used to justify Britain’s exit from the EU.
Tony Blair hoped to hitch the British wagon to the American star. Today Britain is in a mild state of panic, and America is powerless to do anything to help.
Once we had leaders who put our countries ahead of themselves and, if even they pursued actions that were morally wrong, were at least not strategically inept. Now we have the worst of both worlds. But that’s the inevitable endpoint of imperial arrogance: imperial decline.
If I have any hope going forward, it’s that the rest of us never forget the price we’re still made to pay. For, as George W. Bush put it, far more eloquently than ever I could, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”