A picture is coming into focus now, is it not? As I write the United States has launched more than 80 air strikes against the Islamic State. As the strikes have already expanded—and in my view properly so—beyond the original goals of saving the Yazidis and protecting American people and property in Erbil, there’s no clear telling of where and when they will end.
So let me run this depressing thought by you: They have every chance of ending with Barack Obama, and undoubtedly his successor as well, having to prosecute the war that George W. Bush and his geniuses made inevitable with their lies and errors and perversions of law and criminally irresponsible fantasies about this Iraq that they promised us would reveal itself before our eyes as painlessly and quickly and even beautifully as a rose coming to bloom in time-lapse photography.
Conservative readers are already tweeting: Here we go, blame Bush again. Well, in a word, yes. I’m afraid these dots are preposterously easy to connect. But first, we have a date with the wayback machine.
I have been looking back over a few predictions about the Iraq War from back in 2002 and 2003. Recall Dick Cheney: “Weeks rather than months.” Also “we will be greeted as liberators.” Paul Wolfowitz: “There's a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” Wolfowitz again, since he was to my mind the most Satanic of the bunch: “It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine.”
Well, you know the rest. I could fill a book with these little memories. I could also fill another book—but a slenderer one, since so many of our “leading intellectuals” and so much of our foreign-policy establishment types noted the prevailing winds and hyped themselves into a pro-war frenzy—with grim predictions. But I’ll limit myself to two.
The first: “Possibly the most dire consequences would be the effect in the region. The shared view in the region is that Iraq is principally an obsession of the U.S. The obsession of the region, however, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There would be an explosion of outrage against us. We would be seen as ignoring a key interest of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow American interest.”
And second: “While we hoped that popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf. Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guidelines about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in mission creep, and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs.”
Pretty good, that first one. Holds up. Noam Chomsky? A Nation editorial? Nope. Brent Scowcroft, writing in The Wall Street Journal. The second is a bit of a giveaway, what with that first sentence, but the mordant irony of it is still delicious: That was Scowcroft writing with none other than George W. Bush’s father.
George H.W. Bush and Scowcroft could not have known, writing in 1998, what those “incalculable human and political costs” would be. But they were on the right track, and now, we know. A jihadist organization unlike any we’ve seen before that was birthed (as al-Qaeda in Iraq) in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq around the time when the Iraqi people, we were told, were going to be tossing rose petals at our soldiers’ feet.
Yes, others deserve blame too—Obama (which I’ve written before) because of his Syria policy; the Iraqis themselves, chiefly Nouri al-Maliki, for freezing the Sunnis out of the government; and Bashar al-Assad, who’s been busy killing innocents and until recently winking at ISIS. But the group sprang to life because our invasion uncorked these sectarian forces in precisely the way Scowcroft (and others) predicted—only, in all likelihood, with more violence and vehemence than even he could have foreseen.
So this war, the one we’re starting now against the Islamic State, is the direct descendant of the Bush war. In fact, they’re not even different wars; just different chapters in the same war, precisely as if, after Hitler shot himself, an even more extreme and fanatical menagerie of Nazis arose out of Croatia or somewhere, and we needed another few years, another few trillion dollars, and another few thousand war dead to knock them down.
What are Obama’s choices? They are few. One hopes that we can continue these air strikes and really knock ISIS back on its heels—that air strikes alone can do the job while Iraq rallies under its new prime minister and becomes a real country. One hopes also that the leading Arab and Muslim nations join the fight. But whatever exact form it assumes, this war will take a long, long time. It could lead to our bombing ISIS positions not just in Iraq but in Syria too. It will certainly run into the next presidency. And no, Rand Paulites, we can’t just get out. Letting the Islamic State grow isn’t really an option.
How can things have reached this point of tragic inescapability? For a hundred reasons. But they started in the first place for one reason: We made war in Iraq, and we made it dishonestly and frivolously and stupidly.