Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 25, 2011

Mission Accomplished?

By David K. Shipler

The true results of the two wars ending in Iraq and Libya are likely to be long in coming. The death of Col. Muammar Qaddafi does not close the book on Libya, and the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in December is certainly not the last chapter in Iraq. The only reliable prediction is that whatever seems obvious today will eventually prove incomplete or incorrect. Especially in the Middle East, wars usually fool the hasty pundits and reward the patient historians.

In 1967, after Israel conquered its Arab neighbors in six days, Israelis celebrated in an ecstasy of triumphalism at the capture of Sinai, Gaza, Golan, and the biblical homelands in the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. David had slain Goliath. A righteous Jewish state had risen from the ashes of the Holocaust. And then gradually the euphoria was erased as the spoils of victory became a burden, as Israel’s occupation and Jewish settlements radicalized Palestinian residents into a security threat. A two-state solution might be easier to achieve today if the Six-Day War had not occurred.

In 1973, after Israel was almost vanquished in the attacks of the Yom Kippur War, recriminations and investigations were directed at Israeli leaders for lack of preparedness. Yet the Arabs’ near victory, it has been argued, enhanced the stature of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, so that in 1977 he could offer peace by making his dramatic journey to Jerusalem not as a supplicant but as a formidable Arab leader. For signing a peace treaty with Israel, he was then vilified by hardline Arabs, but he got Sinai back by using a pen, not a rifle.

In 1982, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon ousted the Palestine Liberation Organization and secured Israel’s northern border for a time. In conventional terms, it was a victory. But power is perception, and the vaunted Israeli army—so skilled and feared in the Arab world—appeared vulnerable as its stay in Lebanon dragged on. Internal criticism of the “war of choice” weakened Israel’s resolve. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who exaggerated the ability of military force to remake politics, failed in his aim to eliminate Syrian influence and recreate Lebanon into a friendly, pro-Western neighbor. Close-in attacks on Israeli troops demonstrated what individuals could do against superior arms—a lesson adapted years later against Americans in Iraq.

Today, the Libyan venture by NATO looks like a cost-free success. With rebels on the ground willing to shed their blood, the Western outsiders escaped unscathed. But does the painlessness of high-tech warfare, waged from the air with impunity, make war more likely? Is public support easier to muster where only dollars are at stake, not lives? Will the U.S. grow cavalier in committing remote-controlled weapons to conflicts where its national interest is marginal? And to what end? The U.S. is being praised by Libyans grateful for our help. But how durable is the admiration? How will we handle the aftermath? What will emerge from the rubble: A free democracy? A new authoritarianism? An Islamic state? Disintegration along the lines of tribe and clan?

The questions about Iraq are no less compelling. Begun under false pretenses, the war toppled Saddam Hussein’s ruthless regime, but it released a torrent of sectarian violence and stained America’s cloak of moral authority. The photographs of abused, humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib will never disappear as icons of brutality.

The war removed Iraq from the Arab order of battle threatening Israel, but it also opened a vacuum inviting the spread of Iranian influence, which is now institutionalized through certain Iraqi political parties. In the absence of U.S. troops, will the Iraqi military fragment into factions that include pro-Iranian elements? Will an emboldened Iran be less susceptible to sanctions and less amenable to compromise on its nuclear program? These are the most visible uncertainties.

Less obvious are the possible gains. It is not popular in the U.S. to ask whether the war will eventually hold some benefit, but the questions are worth considering. When a dictator is toppled in Baghdad and a fledgling democracy is established—albeit under the American gun—how does that resonate in Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, and Damascus? Even if no activists in the Arab Spring would cite Iraq as a model, is there an oblique connection? Did the demise of Saddam not open up imaginations? And what of the terrible toll of killing between Sunnis and Shia? Did that not stir disgust and reflection elsewhere in the Muslim world? What has it said to the faithful about the dynamics in modern Islam? Has it contributed to the fading of al-Qaeda’s appeal? Will it promote a reformation? When raw hatred goes on display, consciousness is often awakened.

These are the riddles of war.

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