The debate between Max Boot and Andrew Sullivan over America’s postwar relationship with Iraq really captures what the Times Online has asserted in a recent article: “the evidence is now overwhelming that on all fronts, despite inevitable losses from time to time, it is we who are advancing and the enemy who is in retreat. The current mood on both sides of the Atlantic, in fact, represents a kind of curious inversion of the great French soldier’s dictum: ‘Success against the Taleban. Enemy giving way in Iraq. Al-Qaeda on the run. Situation dire. Let’s retreat!’ ”
While not everyone is unreservedly optimistic, Max Boot rightly points out that the West has been in Middle East for a long time. The French and British in especial will remember that. But even the US has had a long military involvement in the region, much of it spurred by the 1990s requirement to “contain” Saddam Hussein. Time did not begin with Operation Iraq Freedom. Boot writes:
Sullivan thinks it’s impossible to imagine that we could have this sort of long-standing military presence in the Mideast without perpetual fighting. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that the U.S. already has a string of bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern countries. Having visited many of these installations I haven’t noticed a lot of fighting there. In fact they are peaceful and relatively uncontroversial. Granted, the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was more controversial: Osama bin Laden cited it as a justification for his campaign of terrorism. But we now know that was simply a pretext, since his calls for violence in his homeland have not ended even though we have withdrawn our troops.
One of the major reasons why it was always doubtful that America would withdraw entirely and relocate, as John Murtha once suggested in a moment of absentmindedness, to Okinawa, is that the region is a strategic focus of national and world interest. An Iraq in chaos or exporting subversion would pull America into the region, rather than permit a ramping down of overt military presence. Moreover, the eventual drawdown of US forces in Germany was made possible, not merely by the cultural differences between the Germans and the Arabs, but by the changes in the strategic situation in the region. The US didn’t stay in Germany until the Germans were pacified. They stayed until the Eastern Bloc collapsed. Perhaps one of the worst outcomes of the partisan over on Iraq has been to dissociate the campaign from its larger strategic aims.
The biggest potential gains of the campaign (in my view) have been to put the damper on the threat of WMD development in Iraq and Syria, create an alternative model of governance for the Shi’ite arc and effect the discredit of al Qaeda. These gains present a number of opportunities which should be exploited by future administrations. The entire debate over future US facilities in Iraq should revolve around how such facilities should be configured in order to develop these strategic gains and not around cultural comparisons between the Germans and Arabs. Yet even so, a commentator writing in 1946 and looking back at the century of horror and mayhem that convulsed Europe — an history which contained multiple genocides and ethnic cleansings (the Ukranian Famine, the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, the Scramble for Africa) and two of the most destructive wars in history — might have been forgiven for having doubts over whether the European was all that much better than the Arab. Now hardly a day goes by without some conservative commentator observing that “America is from Mars and Europe is from Venus”. Who would have said that in 1946? The fictional Harry Lime, closer to the events in memory than we are today, had much to say about Cuckoo Clocks. But he was wrong. Europe has shown that it is more than capable of peace. Maybe the Arabs are too.