I used to think that the de-emphasis on math and science–not to mention the idiocy of kids ridiculing other kids for being smart–was the United States’ weakest link in our hope for a prosperous future, but what could surpass even the forementioned idiocy, is that the political mind set of late, in the GOP, has enabled, no, promoted the extensive re-writing of our history. And the fact that Americans and their politicians are willing to embrace Adult Attention Deficit Disorder as a means of forming political rationalizations, places the U.S. on a parallel path with the downfall of the Roman Empire.
So just how badly does this prevailing attitude, combined with the unbridled emphasis bestowed upon being the first in line for the newest smartphones, jeapordize our ability to avoid the same fate as our most substantively similar predecessors?
As the revered Franklin Roosevelt realized all too well, success in the Second World War required much more than mere military might; it also involved the defeat of the extremist ideology of fascism—often mislabeled as any number of socio-economic “isms”, from communism (a political philosophy) to socialism (an economic philosophy) that brought death and destruction to millions. As such, the war between 1939 and 1945 was as much a battle of ideas as it was a military conflict, and throughout the entirety of the military engagement, FDR put as much effort into winning the peace as he did into winning the war.
This strength of will did not just happen overnight. It came from a comprehensive strategy of the dissemination of a factual retelling of history and long years of experience, including the experience of having lived through America’s first major engagement as a global power—our entrance into the First World War–a move which President Wilson claimed was driven by America’s desire “to make the world safe for democracy.”
The tragic events unfolding in Iraq today are not all that dissimilar to what took place in the 1930s and 40s. Once again the U.S. faces an extremist ideology that is bent on conquest and has little respect for human life. Once again the U.S. faces an enemy that rejects the core set of values that stand at the root of Western civilization, including freedom of speech and freedom of or from religion.
To counter this threat, senior American policy-makers often speak—as former Vice President Dick Cheney did this past week in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal—of the need to defend and secure America’s “freedom,” by the promotion—read “forcing”–of “freedom” abroad. Our brand of freedom, naturally.
Aside from the irony of Dick Cheney who was either so wrong or just lying about so much in regard to his goal of nation-building-for-profit in Iraq, the most comprehensive example of this modern-day attempt “to make the world safe for democracy” can be easily traced back to its nascence in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Make no mistake, this was a war of choice which was launched under the false assumption (at least that was the stated purpose) that the “Iraqi people” would respond to “freedom” in a manner similar to what happened in Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Cheney’s American strategy in this exercise in regime change was publicly based on the idea that the people of Iraq would embrace democracy and Western values—conveniently ignoring, of course, that Iraq—unlike Germany or westernized Japan in 1945—was unequivocally not part of the West; and moreover, most of the Iraqi people had very little experience or interest in building a modern pluralistic state.
In short, they could’ve cared less about the U.S. inserting themselves into Iraq’s sovereign rights.
All of this points to a major flaw that existed—and still exists—in the thinking of those like Vice President Cheney who base America’s security on the promotion of what some recent analysts have termed “hard Wilsonianism”—the idea that in the post-Cold War world the United States can use its overwhelming military superiority to enforce an imperialistic international order.
Although factual that what is currently taking place in Iraq and Syria is a major international crisis, it is also true that were it not for Bush/Cheney’s personal agenda to insert America into Iraq under initial false pretenses, America’s withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 would not have precipitated this new crisis.
What is largely missing from the current debate over Iraq and Syria—as well as the equally dangerous crisis in Ukraine—is the overwhelming need for American policy-makers and the American public to pay greater attention to the religious and ideological forces at work in these crises and the one tool perhaps more than any other that can help us avoid these sorts of catastrophes in the future: the study of history. Or rather, the practice of ignoring history to be more precise.
A fundamental understanding of Iraq’s history, for example, would have made clear that Iraq was carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in a secret treaty between the British and the French at the height of the First World War, and that modern Iraq is really three nations, one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish, held together in its initial years by the British Empire and for the rest of the 20th century by the brutal hand of dictators like Saddam Hussein. All facts and all ignored–some think on purpose.
In his unsolicited criticism of the decision to withdraw all of America’s combat forces from Iraq, former Vice President Cheney accused President Obama of being “willfully blind to the impact of his policies.” Now if that is not the proverbial pot calling the kettle black (no pun intended) what else could it possibly be, because the recent history of Iraq indicates that President Bush and his advisors are equally guilty of this sin, if not more so.
A deeper understanding of Iraqi as well as American history would have indicated to them that “wishful thinking about our adversaries,” as Vice President Cheney put it, is indeed “folly,” the sort of folly that led us to launch the 2003 invasion with far too few troops, based on the fatal hypothesis that U.S. forces would be universally welcomed in this deeply divided, semi-artificial state.
Viewed from this perspective, the Bush administration’s decision to not only take out Saddam Hussein but also destroy—with a minimum presence of American ground force—Iraq’s bureaucracy and army borders on criminal negligence. For as we now know, the latter two moves, especially disbanding the Iraqi Army, were grave mistakes, releasing tens of thousands of armed men—mostly Sunni armed men, who were convinced they had little or no future in a Shia-dominated Iraq—into the general population. The result was near civil war and the need for a major surge of American troops, all of which made an undeniable, complete mockery of President Bush’s claim on May 1, 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq” had ended.
Even if we were to believe that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was necessary, a closer reading of history might have led to a much more responsible and well-thought-out strategy: one that took awareness of the deep ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq.
General MacArthur and President Truman understood this when they ordered the Japanese Army to keep order in Japan until American occupation troops arrived. They understood that the uncontrolled disbanding of any nation’s armed forces is a recipe for disaster. And as FDR recognized, the development of Western-style democracy involves much more than the highly over-used and over-rated concept of “freedom” or the right to vote. It also requires tolerance, a respect for the rule of law, and a willingness to build the necessary institutions that make up a modern democratic state, not just the destruction of the socio-economic underpinning that existed before the U.S. intrusion into another sovereign country’s affairs.
In a little-known comment near the end of the rowdy 1920s—the decade which witnesses a vicious civil war in Russia and a great deal of nationalist upheaval in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine—British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reflected that what was really required in the wake of the First World War was not so much the resolve “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson argued, but rather the determination “to make democracy safe for the world.”
Franklin Roosevelt understood this. He recognized that it was the ideology of fascism—inspired in no small part by the frustrations of the First World War—that brought us the Second World War and all its related horrors, including the Holocaust. As such, to win the military struggle—made so much easier today by the advent of technologies like the predator drone—was not enough.
He understood that we also had to bring an end to the ideology of fascism, and to accomplish this we had to offer the people of the world not just “freedom” but a much more expansive and all-inclusive concept to take its place.
As FDR expressed so well, we wanted to replace fascism with freedom of speech and expression, freedom of or from worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four concepts together, along with the creation of such institutions as the United Nations and America’s willingness to embrace multilateralism, gave us the credibility to lead the world in the decades that followed.
You see, FDR learned from history, from having lived through the First World War and the failed peace that followed. He did not pursue war as an economic strategy which has become the predominant focus of the neocon wing of the GOP. He understood that our ultimate task was not so much to “make the world safe for democracy,” but rather “to make democracy safe for the world.”
It is this lesson that we need to embrace today if we are to entertain any hope of bringing an end to the crises in Iraq and Syria, a close to the U.S. as an imperialistic nation, wealth building for political and personal economic gain, and war as an economic strategy, that started with the brainstorm of a few ruthless, greedy, solipsistic leanings of master manipulators and psychotic madmen like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove.
Harvey A. Gold