What We Have Done

ACCEPTING OUR RESPONSIBILITY FOR IRAQ

 

The Iraq war will continue. President George W. Bush has committed 21,500 additional U.S. troops to “seize, hold, and build” in Baghdad. This decision emerged from sharp disagreements within his administration. U.S. allies and countries in the region were informed, not consulted. Their advice was unnecessary because their ideas about U.S. power are almost universally regarded as irrelevant. In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, in editorial offices and in think tanks, at least one principle is taken for granted: When it comes to decisions about U.S. interests and security, Americans alone will decide. Unilateralism is America’s deepest commitment. In 2001, we decided-with little consultation-to launch a “war on terror.” In 2003, we reluctantly brought the issue of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” to the United Nations; but, noting international opposition to military intervention, the president, with the consent of Congress, decided on our behalf to invade and occupy Iraq. A year and a half later, with the war at a political and military impasse, we Americans reelected the president. In November 2006, we registered our desire for change. Debate followed, and now our president has again decided, on our behalf, to continue the war. So Iraq was and remains our war, not just his. American men and women die-three thousand so far. They suffer terrible injuries and they kill, not for President Bush but for the country, for all of us. That fact should be etched on our hearts. At a birthday party I recently attended, a lovely blond-haired girl with a southern lilt opened her locket to show me a tiny picture of her dad, a National Guard officer on his second tour in Iraq. On the way home, I tried to imagine the feelings of families like hers reading reports of experienced U.S. leaders saying the war was a mistake and cannot be won. What must it be like to hear friends and neighbors arguing that we are on the wrong track, that we should bring the troops home. Now the president has decided to send more troops. What must that be like for those with loved ones in Iraq? Many Americans, trying to find meaning in the sacrifices of our military personnel in Iraq, claim that victory-whatever it means-is imperative. Others think we can redeem the sacrifice of our soldiers by pulling out now and making sure no more Americans die-whatever the political price, whatever the consequences for the region. But that is our debate: victory or withdrawal. The terms of this debate demonstrate the corruption of our political, moral, and intellectual leadership. I have taught U.S. history for over forty years, and I hope I have communicated to my students the idea that the politics of foreign policy is serious business. It is serious in part because foreign policy is carried out on our behalf. We Americans, through our government, have devoted time, treasure, and talent for six decades to developing and preparing to use weapons of mass destruction. We did that together. And together we are now responsible for our “war on terror,” our war in Iraq, our plans for war with Iran, and our continuing research and development of nuclear weapons. These are very serious matters, and they will not be resolved by seeking an illusury victory over evil, by withdrawing our troops, or by impeaching the president. Bumper stickers trivialize our responsibilities. We Americans have to grow up. We must accept our responsibility-for the troops serving on our behalf, and for the political morass we have helped create by refusing to share power and responsibility with others. All our goals-security against terrorism, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, reliable access to resources and markets, protection of human rights, environmental safety-can be achieved only through international cooperation. Some nations can be genuine allies, and others are understandably wary of us because of our chronic unilateralism. Still others have interests very different from ours. That means we cannot always have our way. Instead we have to build on the ever-widening circle of nations that agree that war should be allowed only as a last resort and that terror threatens everybody. Security is only genuine when it is held in common. Right now, we Americans need help. We need military and civilian help in Iraq to ease the transition to self-government. We need diplomatic help to persuade Iraq’s neighbors to resist pressures to intervene. We need economic assistance to begin the reconstruction Americans have been unable to deliver. We will need help to support a self-governing Iraq, to deal with genuine threats to Israel, to the Kurds, to the stability of the entire region, and to combat the world-wide threat of terrorism. And we cannot get that help unless we are willing to abandon the notion that only our own power can make us safe. Reaching every goal we seek will require us to step back from unilateralism. Reducing the world’s weapons of mass destruction means the United States must commit to abolishing nuclear arms. Stabilizing world oil supplies, overcoming the chaos of failed states, combating global epidemics, and addressing world poverty will never happen without international cooperation. National security requires common security. Internationalism is twenty-first-century Americanism. Politicians will never say such things until ordinary citizens start believing those ideas. Other nations will not help us until we admit that we need help and show a willingness to share power. The UN will not work until Americans come to value the United Nations and to support international nongovernmental organizations that work for international understanding and cooperation. Until the common good of the human family becomes a genuine commitment of U.S. churches, schools, universities, professions, businesses, and social and political movements, we Americans will find ourselves fighting dubious battles, as we did in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, as we do today in Iraq, and as we will tomorrow in Iran and Korea. When thinking about the president’s risky plan to send in more troops, remember that little girl and her dad. The president says the best thing we can do is beef up our forces so we can eventually leave behind peace and security in Iraq, and at least a bit of democracy. Critics say such goals cannot be achieved that way, and that we must remove our troops from harm’s way. Whatever happens, the price in suffering will be paid in part by people in Iraq who have no voice in the decision. Let’s listen for another American voice ready to say that we are in trouble, that we need help, and that we are finally prepared to share responsibility and power in order to achieve the lasting security, justice, and peace that are the hope of us all, everywhere.

Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: 

David O'Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.

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