The current crisis in Iraq, atop the continuing crisis in Ukraine/Crimea, should be sufficient to shift our attention from the Washington Redskins nickname and the upcoming midterm elections.
As we view these war-peace issues, we would do well to forget their near-term impacts on Democrats' or Republicans' political prospects, the lens through which mainstream and cable news journalists present everything these days. No, they bear watching through the larger lens of history. And they offer little reason for optimism.
To begin with, we in the U.S. see these issues from an entirely different vantage point than the countries and groups we view as upsetters of a rule-of-law, ordered international regime. (This will take a while to explain, so return to the Redskins and partisan politics if the subject bores you.)
Pre-modern history was mainly a story of ethnic groups and tribes trying to enlarge or protect their own regions. Then came the colonial era in which developed countries, in Europe in particular, strove to accumulate financial and economic power and vital resources by grabbing Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin American territory.
Before World War I, the colonizers saw nothing but peace and prosperity ahead for their own European continent. You could travel across European borders without a passport. There were rivalries and tensions between the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but nothing, it was thought, that could lead to war. The colonized were seen as lower-caste hewers of wood and drawers of water at the service of their colonial masters.
But the tragedies of World Wars I and II not only shattered all major developed countries but the United States, which emerged the only true economic and political winner. Those conflicts shattered colonialism and created a new world order. In it, the most powerful nations — think of them as today's Group of Seven, plus Russia — continued to have the strongest voice in world affairs, but emergent countries had a place at the table. Within those emergent countries, some of which acquired nuclear weapons, ethnic and religious rivalries often outweighed loyalties to newly established nationhood.
Which brings us to Iraq.
Almost 100 years ago Great Britain drew arbitrary lines across a map to form that country. The lines included northern Kurds, western Sunni-Muslims and eastern Shiite Muslims. There was no logical reason to put these groups into the same country, except for the convenience of British administrators.
As the post-colonial era moved on, Iraq remained one country, held together — as many others in similar situations — by a ruthless strong man, Saddam Hussein. Saddam, a Sunni, included a few Kurds and Shiites in his government. But real power resided with him and his Sunni-dominated Baath party.
Oil revenue kept the country running. Saddam undertook chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs to establish Iraq's position in the region. He won a bloody, extended war against Shiite Iran, then went too far by invading Kuwait and threatening neighboring Saudi Arabia.
In response, President George H.W. Bush led a coalition against Saddam. The multinational offensive afforded the northern Kurds protection and semi-autonomy, gave Shiites a measure of cover and grossly degraded Saddam's military capability. But it left Saddam in power.
After that first Gulf War, Saddam continued to boast of his chemical, biological and nuclear-weapons programs. As it turned out, they never got restarted. Saddam was just trying to frighten his regional rivals. Even his generals believed that these weapons existed, under some other general's jurisdiction. We know now they did not.
Gulf War II, as it turned out, was a blunder as big as the U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s. In both cases, U.S. policymakers totally misread the situations in those countries. Vietnam was seen as part of the Cold War. It was instead an internal conflict that did not involve American vital interests.
Iraq was seen as a regional threat led by a tyrant who might make turn his weapons of mass destruction against, among others, Israel. When George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq, it was broadly supported by, among others, then-Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. All agreed that Iraq's possession of WMD made war necessary. Only later did we learn that the WMD programs no longer existed. Iraq, like Vietnam, posed no threat to American vital interests.
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