History, wrote T. S. Eliot in 1920, “deceives with whispering ambitions” and “guides us by vanities.” Over the past decade, ambitions and vanities have led the United States badly astray, nowhere more than in the Islamic world. Let us tally up the damage.
Among most Americans, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted a response combining fear, anger and mourning. Yet in Washington, in circles where ambition and vanity held sway, those events also represented a signal opportunity. In a twinkling, action had become the order of the day. Existing restraints on the use of U.S. power suddenly fell away. A radical reorientation of American statecraft suddenly appeared possible. Overnight, the previously implausible had become not only necessary, but also alluring.
For decades, U.S. policy in the Middle East had sought to shore up that region’s precarious stability. In a part of the world always teetering on the brink of chaos, averting war had formed the centerpiece of U.S. policy.
Now, however, the administration of George W. Bush contrived a different approach. Through war, the United States would destabilize the region and then remake it to the benefit of all. “The United States may not be able to lead countries through the door of democracy,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz remarked, “but where that door is locked shut by a totalitarian deadbolt, American power may be the only way to open it up.”
The ‘Democratic Domino Theory’
Where then to begin this process of creative destruction? On the first weekend after Sept. 11, at a war council meeting at Camp David, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Mr. Wolfowitz made the case for striking Iran. Then, in late November 2001, a small study group of Washington insiders convened at Wolfowitz’s behest. Christopher DeMuth, then president of the American Enterprise Institute, recruited the group’s members and later shared its conclusions with Bob Woodward. The group identified Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the best place for blowing that door off its hinges. Although most of the 9/11 hijackers had come from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “the problems there [were] intractable.” Iraq was seen as “different, weaker, more vulnerable,” Mr. Woodward reported in his book State of Denial (2006). Here was the place to implement America’s new “democratic domino theory.” As President Bush himself proclaimed, toppling Saddam “would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example for freedom for other nations in the region.”
The point is crucial. Only by appreciating the magnitude of the Bush administration’s post-9/11, vanity-saturated ambitions does it become possible to gauge their unforeseen consequences. Only then can we fully appreciate the deeply ironic outcome that those ambitions yielded.
Put simply, invading Iraq was never itself the end. Doing so pointed toward a much larger objective. Writing months before the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, the journalist Mark Danner accurately characterized President Bush’s post-9/11 strategy as “comprehensive, prophetic, [and] evangelical.” That strategy was nothing if not bold and brazen.
Washington, Mr. Danner observed, had jettisoned “the ideology of a status quo power” that had largely shaped U.S. policy since World War II. Containing evil no longer sufficed. “The transformation of the Middle East,” insisted Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s national security advisor, offered “the only guarantee that it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York or Washington.”
Transformation—there was a word redolent with ambition and vanity. By invading Iraq and overthrowing a dictator, an administration disdainful of mere stability would make a start at transforming the entire Islamic world. In the first decade of the 21st century, the United States intended to reprise the role it credited itself with playing during the second half of the 20th century. Across the Middle East, ideologies of hatred would give way to the ideology of freedom.
Unfortunately, this preening liberation narrative, that hardy perennial of American political discourse, did not describe the 20th century that the peoples of the Middle East had actually experienced. Arabs, Iranians and other Muslims had little reason to look to the United States (or any other Western nation) for liberation. Nor did the freedom to which they aspired necessarily accord with Washington’s tacit understanding of the term: “friendly” governments that on matters ranging from oil to Israel to terrorism obligingly deferred to U.S. policy preferences.
Much to its chagrin, the Bush administration soon learned that the dyad pitting hatred against freedom did not exhaust the full range of possible outcomes. The United States dispatched Saddam Hussein, but the results confidently predicted by the war’s architects failed to materialize. The blown-open door admitted not democracy, but endemic violence. Even today, a decade into the post-Saddam era and two years after the last American soldier departed, the Iraq War continues. In October 2013 alone, that war claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 Iraqis.
Nor did that violence confine itself to Iraq. Following in the wake of the U. S. invasion of Iraq came not transformation, but disorder that enveloped large swaths of the Middle East. In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt popular uprisings overthrew dictators. Nowhere, however, did this so-called Arab Spring yield effective governments, much less liberal democracy. Nowhere did upheaval enhance American stature, standing or influence.
Then came Syria. There indigenous efforts to overthrow another dictator led to an immensely bloody civil war. Declaring that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” while drawing never-to-be-crossed “red lines,” President Barack Obama still nursed the fancy that it was incumbent upon the United States to sort matters out.
Only on the eve of ordering another armed intervention did Mr. Obama pause long enough to notice that he was pretty much on his own. In the White House, illusions that U.S. bombs and rockets could deliver Syrians from evil still lingered. Others—including a clear majority of the American people, both chambers of Congress and even the British Parliament—had concluded otherwise. With the stores of 9/11-induced vanity and ambition (not to mention the U.S. Treasury) now depleted, faith in the transformative power of American military might had waned. The president prudently pulled back from the brink.
Whether Mr. Obama’s about-face in Syria marks a decisive turn in overall U.S. policy in the Middle East remains to be seen. Senior officials like National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice have hinted that the administration would like to turn its attention elsewhere. Even if it does, this much seems certain: The instability that U.S. policymakers a decade ago so heedlessly sought will persist.
Scholars will long debate whether the misuse of American power caused or merely catalyzed this instability—or indeed whether the disorder roiling the Middle East derives from factors to which decisions made in Washington are largely irrelevant. What they will not debate is the outcome, best captured in the words of another poet, Robert Lowell. “Pity the planet,” he wrote, “all joy gone.” And “peace to our children when they fall/ in small war on the heels of small/ war—until the end of time.”
Of course, the vast majority of those felled by the violence rippling through the Islamic world are not the offspring of Americans. They are someone else’s children. Although this makes their fate that much easier for present-day Americans to stomach—and even ignore—it is unlikely to affect the judgment that history will render. Mindless policies conceived by an arrogant and ignorant elite have produced shameful results.