Some questions start to generate multiple answers as soon as they are asked.
In our great divide in America, we do have general agreement that Iraq is key. Those who believe we should never have gone or should get out now think it is key because it is a focal point for the rest of the world, illustrating that the US is too ready to fight, doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, doesn’t understand the Middle East, etc. Those who believe we need to win think it is key because of American credibility, calming a key trouble spot, installing the beginnings of long-term solutions, etc.
What if it’s not key, one way or the other? I like to discover the questions that no one is asking. What we are all most sure of sometimes contains our greatest blind spot.
I am not making the claim that it isn’t central to international affairs for the next two decades. For good or ill, that is still the most plausible playing out of current events. I’m just looking back over the events of the 20th C, and noting that popular opinion about what was important hasn’t often turned out to be correct. The ending of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, as much as it was noticed in Europe and America at all, looked like a relief at the time, but actually led to changes in both countries that dominated the century. Victorious Japan did not get the spoils it felt it deserved, prompting it to ramp up to become a power that could enforce its will. Tsarist Russia was revealed as weak, leading eventually to its overthrow in 1917.
The Russian Revolution itself was considered important in Europe and America only in its effect on The Great War. In retrospect, The Great War wasn’t over and merely simmered for another 20 years before coming to a final conclusion in the Second World War, and the fall of Russia to Communism changed everything. In historical significance, sometimes the last shall be first and all that.
We thought of the outcomes of Korea and Vietnam as having enormous consequences, but their resolutions did not affect events as much as the fact that they happened at all. Stalemate and loss still led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I don’t know that victory would have hastened things that much. The difference was enormous for Vietnamese and Cambodians; the difference between victory and defeat is still large in American rhetoric and affects foreign policy. But once contained by our opposition in SE Asia, the big issues of the second half of the century for China have been 1) the Cultural Revolution, 2) the one-child policy, and 3) the embrace of capitalism. For the Soviet Union, it was the being drained and opposed in a dozen places that eventually brought them down, bankrupt and imploding. Stalemate in Korea/ losing Vietnam may not have been much different from winning Korea and Vietnam in the grand sweep of events. Showing up may have been the difference. (Again, it made enormous difference to those in SE Asia).
Laying too much against such speculations is futile, of course. Perhaps victory in Vietnam would have brought collapse to the USSR a decade earlier. Perhaps it would have increased the likelihood of their using nuclear weapons. Perhaps victory would have encouraged us to overt, rather than covert, military action in the other places we encountered marxist revolutionaries. I am not trying to prove what would have happened, but only standing back to observe what did happen, and how it doesn’t fit our usual descriptions. Chile in 1973 was on the brink of revolution, and all since in South America may have gone just as it has even if we hadn’t involved ourselves in it (Note to my younger readers: Chile is still a very large issue in the minds of Boomer leftists. The mythology of a functioning marxism which was delivering benefit to the downtrodden, brutally interrupted in its cradle by fascist America, has proved impervious to discussion. The idea that our behavior may not have changed things one way or the other is intolerable to contemplate).
So with all that caution in mind – the humility to admit that we might not know what the big events are in any era – let’s look at Iraq. We’re spending a lot of money there – that’s big, of course. All eyes are on us, which is the natural result of everyone being sure this is very big. People are dying. This has to figure prominently in the moral balance scale – to some it is the only moral issue. But we don’t know if it has much practical effect long-term. Many more people are dying in Darfur and Zimbabwe. More people may be dying in Muslim terrorism in northwest China, though the Chinese suppress that news. Which deaths are actually going to be part of a change for better or worse, and which are just the bloody tragic waste, pain spilled uselessly on the ground, that has been the history of humankind?
That we have sent lots of soldiers and are spending lots of money is rather an automatic. That’s the way that US does war now. We may decide in 20 years that Iraq was a small war that we happened to spend a lot of money on, in an effort to minimize deaths. Sending a few thousand insurrectionists may have had an almost identical effect. Certainly, if the cynics who claim that the Sunnis and Shias have to eventually slug it out until they get sick of dying are correct, whether we do well or poorly may not matter much. If things calm down, both sides of the American divide will say “see, I told ya.” Ditto if things get more violent: “see, I told ya.” If things drag on as they look now for ten years, is that a bad thing? It depends on whether we decide in retrospect it was necessary. If we need to create a holding pattern while demographics and internal struggles in Islam play themselves out, then it is worth it. If it isn’t necessary, then it is worse than a senseless waste.
Or it could indeed be the introduction to the End of the World. We don’t know. Step back and run the various possibilities for the next twenty years through your thought.
Of course, this guy says I'm dead wrong, and we might hope he knows what he's talking about.