The hawks were wrong about everything
We are watching the real-time collapse of several generations of aggressive U.S. policy in the Middle East
On Iraq and Iran — and in the Middle East generally — America's hawkish establishment has gotten just about all the important questions wrong. The hawks have been mistaken about so much for generations now, both strategically and morally. It is time to stop listening to them.
Need proof? Ask yourself this question: Has any foreign policy decision in recent U.S. history gone so clearly and quickly wrong as the assassination of Iran's Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani? Soleimani was killed Friday. Over the course of the ensuing weekend, the following occurred:
- U.S. officials warned Americans to leave Iraq — and, for safety's sake, to avoid approaching the embassy in Baghdad. Back at home, cities started bracing for possible terrorist attacks. Soleimani's death was supposed to make Americans safer, but the reaction of authorities clearly suggested the opposite had happened.
- Iranian leaders announced they will no longer abide by the limits of the Obama-era agreement that had put a long-term pause on their nuclear program. That's no surprise, given that President Trump had long since torn up that agreement and imposed sanctions on Iran, starting the cycle of tit-for-tat escalation that culminated in Soleimani's death. Trump backed out of the deal saying he could get a better one. Instead, Iran's nuclear program may be proceeding and we are on the cusp of outright war.
- Iraq's parliament voted to expel American troops from the country. Trump, continuing to demonstrate his utter disregard for that country's sovereignty, threatened sanctions if Iraq follows through — and said he would demand payment for U.S. improvements to an Iraqi base occupied after America's 2003 invasion. We promised to be liberators in Iraq; now Trump has retroactively decided we should act as conquerors and colonizers instead. The invasion was a failure, but Trump — who criticized the war — has now made the results worse.
- The sanctions threat came after Trump threatened to commit war crimes — attacks on Iranian cultural sites — as retaliation for any Iranian attacks on U.S. people or assets. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to walk back that threat, but the president on Sunday night doubled down. America's moral credibility abroad, already in shaky standing, probably suffered a grievous blow — as well it should.
- Saudi Arabia, which has no love for Iran — and is engaged with Iran in a proxy war in Yemen — sent a delegation to Washington to plead for cooler heads to prevail. "They are telling Trump, 'Please spare us the pain of going through another war that would be destructive to the region,'" Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor, told Bloomberg News. Even Saudi Arabia wants no part of the mess Trump is making.
What a disaster. Events proceeded so quickly it became reasonable to wonder if we are watching the real-time collapse of several generations of aggressive U.S. policy in the Middle East.
If so, the catastrophe will have been well-earned — both by Trump and by the hawks who have proven so enduringly influential in his administration. They have been wrong about everything.
On the strategic front, U.S. hawks have been wrong to think they can and should dictate the region's future — a bipartisan error. They have stubbornly refused to acknowledge the limits of U.S. military power. They were wrong to back the 1953 coup against Iran's elected prime minister — an event that produced blowback in the form of the Islamic revolution. They were wrong to cheer America's invasion of Iraq 50 years later. They were wrong to tear up the nuclear deal. They were wrong to believe assassinating an Iranian leader would make Americans safer. Every one of those actions — and a more comprehensive list of errors is much longer — has made the region more chaotic, more dangerous, and more awful for its inhabitants.
Morally, hawks disregarded the effects of never-ending war on both American servicemembers and the region's inhabitants. They were wrong to lie to us about so much, for so long, proclaiming successes publicly while lamenting failures privately. They were wrong to defend and encourage American torture in the region. They were wrong to defend and encourage other war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. And to the extent they continue to back and defend Trump, they are wrong to sign onto his willingness to threaten additional war crimes.
The leaders of many of the region's nations can credibly be described as villainous. That does not make Americans the "good guys" of the region. Last week — before Soleimani's assassination — my colleague Damon Linker urged the American establishment to finally stop trying to micromanage the Middle East. Those leaders obviously didn't listen. In just a single weekend, it appears that everything they have tried to accomplish might fall apart. It is time for Americans to seek a different approach.
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