Of the opportunities in Iraq squandered in our national insistence on our own inadequacy or even evil, few rank as highly as religious freedom and plurality.
The United States did not enshrine religious liberty in the Constitution because all of its people were tolerant, fair-minded, or secular. The colonists were as intolerant of religious difference as people anywhere in the world, no more and no less. But we came to recognize that in the interest of national survival, we had to put aside our differences–or at least ensure that no single sect of the 13 intolerant sects that dominated each if the 13 colonies would have the chance of becoming the official state religion, enforced by a tyrannical king or pope. Shared recognition of the higher principle of religious tolerance as a virtue in and of itself was a collateral outcome, not a primary cause, of the First Amendment.
It is a principle sorely needed in many parts of the world, not least of all the Middle East; and it was within our grasp to achieve it in Iraq 6 years ago. We owned the country. We operated the oil fields. Saddam Hussein was dead; his murderous Baath party was defeated; and Al-Qaeda and the jihadis, if not gone, were neutralized.
At that point, we could have drafted a Constitution based on the principle of separation of powers such that conflict between Sunnis and Shias and Kurds took a back seat to aggregations of citizens along different dimensions, neutralizing the religious one. We could have supported a leader who was able, ready, and willing by principle and conviction to govern across sectarian lines; we didn’t have to settle for the partisan Shia autocrat prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki; and we could have imposed the time-honored practice of term limits (even on the one we chose.) We could have given every adult Iraqi citizen, men and women, equal shares of common and preferred stocks and bonds of a fully privatized formerly national oil industry, giving them a direct stake in the defense of peaceful free-market capitalism and private property rights, as well as a sense of sharing in both the national purpose and its bounty. And we could have stayed until the job was truly done, or at least until after we had pulled out of those other countries where we had overstayed our welcome, like Germany and Japan (the Philippines kicked us out over 20 years ago; but due to the recent Chinese reality check, they want us back). At the very least, we could have negotiated a realistic and appropriate Status of Forces agreement.
But all of that would be Imperialism and ugly-Americanism, of course. Unacceptable! At the very least, too expensive!
Right, until you consider the alternative: the world that is re-emerging before our horrified naive eyes, of a world where American constitutional principles do not reign, where religious difference is grounds for brutal summary beheading, where American influence is weak or non-existent, and where our enemies do not fear us and our friends do not trust us (for good reason.) A lot more barbaric and expensive in the end than if we had the confidence of our actual virtues.
Instead, by our abdication and premature withdrawal, we have achieved the worst possible outcome: an all-out civil war drawn categorically along religious sectarian lines. The Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has maintained a restrained posture for ten years, is now rallying the population (young men especially) to defend Baghdad and the current regime–not in terms of patriotic nationalism, but motivated by religious holy jihad against the rival sect. As Charles Krauthammer put it, these are “two devils, different stripes.” And the biggest winners are the Shiite Ayatollahs of Iran.
In the Fall of 2008, with the domestic economy melting down with the housing market crash and the TARP bailouts for the ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, a majority of Americans, including a plurality of Republicans, were eager to get beyond George W. Bush and their weariness of his Iraq misadventure. That scorn may soon turn to nostalgia as the American people realize how much has been lost in the squandering of the real gains and opportunities afforded us at the height of our success in Iraq in that year.
Argue if you want to that we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place. But what mission was accomplished by our pulling out?
Photo credit: The US Army (Flickr)