Just a few months after America got sideswiped by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I was in Brussels at a gathering of foreign correspondents where the focus of discussion was our suddenly more dark and dangerous world.
During a cocktail hour, I had the opportunity to chat with Bill Kristol, the neoconservative commentator and editor of the Weekly Standard. We got into a discussion about American imperialism and Kristol quite forthrightly said he considered imperialism a good thing. Someone needed to run the world and shape the future and, in Kristol’s view, because only Americans had the power and principles to do it right, empire was both a necessity and a duty.
At the time, I was not aware of how men who shared Kristol’s view -- specifically, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz -- were making plans to extend the U.S. imperium by invading Iraq to depose the tyrant Saddam Hussein. It seems likely that Kristol had a much better sense of what was in the works and was jubilant about the prospect.
Now Kristol is back on the news talk shows making the case for sending American forces back into Iraq to counter the alarming battlefield success of forces from the ultra-violent, ultra-radical group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After spending a trillion tax dollars attempting to rebuild and reshape a conquered land, after 4,500 American soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands wounded, the U.S. is watching Iraq rapidly descend into chaos and religious war. Kristol and his neoconservative compatriots insist that this is not an acceptable ending to their imperial adventure.
Unlike 2002, though, Kristol and friends do not seem nearly as smart as they once did. From his vehement reiteration of the George W. Bush administration’s bogus claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to his certainty in 2008 that Sarah Palin was eminently qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Kristol, over the last decade, has been wrong far more than he has been right.
Twelve years ago, the neoconservatives dreamed that the Islamic world was ripe for democracy, needing only a push from the American military and a lot of not-so-free advice from free-market enthusiasts fresh out of conservative think tanks. That illusion proved to be laughingly naive. Like the Ottoman rulers before him, the grim despot Hussein was keeping a tight lid on religious and ethnic divisions that had festered and occasionally flared in the Islamic world for more than 1,000 years. The American invasion blew off that lid. A reintroduction of U.S. troops now cannot put the genie of hate back in the bottle.
This truly is not America’s fight. Though we must do whatever we can through diplomacy to contain the damage and encourage any tendency toward rationality and reconciliation, we do not need to send any more young Americans to die in a conflict older than America itself.
Back when the neoconservatives were pushing President George W. Bush toward a war with Iraq, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell reminded the president of what he called the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Well, the U.S. did break it, but Americans have paid more than enough in blood and treasure to cover the cost of damage done. Whatever happens from this point forward someone else will have to own.