As the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq threaten its fragile unity. To the backdrop of dozens of people across Baghdad dying from explosions, Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki, a Shiite, has accused Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi of organizing the vice-presidential security detail into a death squad. The vice-president has issued counter-accusations and has taken refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Interviewed on the PBS Newshour, foreign affairs expert and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer said that U.S. problems in Iraq have resulted from not learning the lessons of Vietnam. My own view is that our national misapprehension goes much deeper and that it is less the consequence of our not having learned the right lessons from failure in Vietnam than our having learned the wrong lessons from success in World War II.
Before World War II, the United States had, by historical standards, a fundamentally prosperous and growing economy even in the troubled times of the Depression. We had not maintained a strong enough military to defend ourselves, trusting in our broad oceans, but the country quickly responded to the demands of war. By concerted effort, we mobilized our resources and, with our allies, achieved victory over Germany and Japan. The United States emerged from the war an economic and military superpower. We completed the victory over our former enemies by occupying them, and after occupation they came out of the rubble and became free and democratic societies, as well as dynamic producers of goods and wealth. Our global competition with the Soviet Union, along with our apparent success in rebuilding Germany and Japan, encouraged us to believe that we had the power to shape nations around the world in our own image and that to fail to do so would be to allow the Communist forces to shape nations in their image.
At home, the experience of World War II and the ensuing Cold War encouraged us to believe that governmental campaigns could remake our own society. Not only could we, in the words of President Kennedy, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty” abroad, we could, by dint of policy and national will, remake America into the ideal society. It was no coincidence that the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty together dominated foreign and domestic policy under President Kennedy’s successor. Both were consequences of the post-World War II belief that if we only mobilized our efforts, we could achieve all things through policy.
Our apparent successes in post-war Germany and Japan were not entirely results of our interventions in those counties, though. Germany had been rapidly developing since national unification in 1871. Defeat in the two world wars disturbed its trajectory, but did not end it. Japan, similarly, had been on the rise since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Both nations may have been physically destroyed by war, but they retained the cultural capital that had been driving them forward. Both also had democratic political traditions, in spite of their fall into dictatorship. The United States did not fundamentally re-shape those countries so much as it allowed them to start again on their own.
The belief that we could export our political values and institutions became part of a distorted version of containment strategy in the Cold War. The memoirs of diplomat George F. Kennan and the new biography of Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis attest that Kennan, often regarded as the original theorist of containment, did not think that the United States could halt the spread of Soviet power by intervening to make democracies all around the supposed free world. Kennan, in fact was an acerbic critic of Wilsonian international idealism. Instead, containment as he formulated the idea meant maintaining our defenses while using diplomatic means to fence in the Soviet Union until that nation would alter its own course.
I would agree with those who argue that invading Iraq was a mistake because it diverted us from the war we needed to fight with the rulers of the country that sponsored an attack on us, Afghanistan. Once in Iraq, though, we should have stopped at the initial goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, declared victory, and left. Our confidence that we could build a new political society and re-shape the entire region, that the order in Iraq would be as we wanted and that our greater enemy, Iran, would not emerge stronger did not appear as likely came out of our post World War II delusion that federal policies can remake the world at will.
What lesson should we learn, then? I argue that at home, we should aim at maintaining representative government within Constitutional limits. Abroad, we should set the best example we can and prepare our military for our own defense. We should produce things that people in other countries want to buy and buy the things that we want from them.