America is being haunted by the ghosts of a dark, fumbled past
Last week marked the 19th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, yet in the last two decades, there has been no reckoning of the scale of the heinous crime that the US and its allies perpetuated there. The invasion was clearly an unprovoked war of aggression that eventually birthed a prolonged period of violence and instability that continue to plague the country and the wider Arab region to this day.
It was one of — if not — the biggest strategic misstep in US Middle East policy, and after accounting for the myriad woes that have taken place since, simply concluding the war was a “mistake” and leaving it at that is, frankly, insulting, grossly insufficient and morally repugnant.
Granted, important lessons must have been learned by now, especially after the subsequent mess in Libya in 2011, that the US and its fellow NATO allies should stay out of the business of toppling “unfriendly” regimes overseas, and renounce preventative wars for good. However, to heal the still-festering scars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, simply closing the book on deploying boots on the ground in service of far-fetched pretexts and awful rationalizations will not be enough to exorcise the specters that now haunt America’s presence on the global stage.
By repeatedly waging war across parts of the Middle East, it became clear to the rest of the region that state sovereignty was merely contingent upon acceding to toeing Washington’s line rather than a “right” protected by unassailable international laws. Strangely, the US helped create a system of international laws, norms, and institutions to help maintain global peace and security, while affording sovereign states effective means by which to seek redress for gross violations.
However, none of that seemed to matter between 2001 and 2011, unfurling a period of chaos and the clearest signs yet of America’s diminution in a changing world. The Iraq war alone did incalculable damage to any moral standing the transatlantic alliance had accumulated over five decades since the end of the Second World War, erasing most of the credibility in its engineering and policing of the post-1945 global order.
An invasion of a non-threatening country on the flimsiest of pretexts, did not just inflame an entire region, nor simply shake up what should have been a firmly established international order. Hundreds of thousands died, and some victims remain immortalized to this day due to well-publicized atrocities, all done in the name of promoting democracy and “freedom” abroad.
A gaping deficit of trust was not the only natural consequence of a transatlantic alliance stumbling its way to war in Iraq and bumbling through it. Beyond the record numbers of war dead, injured and displaced, the ensuing instability eventually birthed Daesh, intensified the conflict in Syria, and sparked the largest migrant crisis in a single year since the Second World War.
Furthermore, while the Barack Obama years may have clawed back some lost confidence and trust in Washington’s global leadership, many of those gains were quickly erased by the lurch toward “America First,” and a growing antagonism to what were perceived as unnecessary entanglements overseas. Of course, the discourse on pursuing greater insularity and stepping away from multilateral frameworks in favor of lopsided bilaterals, or no “laterals” whatsoever, has largely faded with the current White House’s relative successes at reinvigorating battered alliances.
There still needs to be some kind of order since power, much like nature, abhors a vacuum.
However, the collective whiplash suffered by America’s partners and allies across the planet in the past decade alone cannot be erased by perfunctory diplomatic overtures that leave no room for reckoning with the horrors inflicted on Iraq and other war-torn Arab countries. In other words, Washington should not simply talk its way back into dominating global affairs nor be granted a wide berth to reorganize the liberal order without first restoring the nations it helped raze to the ground. Otherwise, expending all this effort to once again become the self-proclaimed leader of the free world will always be overshadowed by the woeful consequences of its misguided and unchecked militarism.
Aside from taking an active role in resolving ongoing conflicts or crises in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as shepherding post-war transitions that are actually locally led and owned, the US must also reckon with its domestic troubles. Until recently, American foreign policy has always survived the ebbs and flows of its domestic politics, resulting in a mostly cohesive, enduring posture abroad that had bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the militaristic monolith that was once the US has become so divided at home it is proving extremely challenging for a growing number of countries to believe Washington can continue to function as the champion of democracy, human rights and global security.
Instead, what has infected the global consciousness vis-a-vis American hegemony is a pervasive belief that a horrifying legacy in the Middle East and North Africa, combined with China’s largely meteoric rise, are signs of a waning empire facing economic and moral decline. It is a troubling development that will undoubtedly leave a vacuum atop an inherently ungovernable world where order is instituted by hegemonic overreach and intemperance, rather than shared ideals policed by universally enforceable principles. America cannot blame anyone but itself should feverish re-engagements and rejuvenated partnerships fail to reverse a gaping trust deficit, especially across the Arab world.
Nonetheless, there still needs to be some kind of order since power, much like nature, abhors a vacuum. When powers like the US relinquish their moral hegemonies via unprovoked and needless wars, while encroaching rivals nip away at their economic might, almost every other country on the planet will be left adrift, unclear on what “new” powers or principles will emerge to police an unsettled world.
The ensuing fear births an all-consuming uncertainty in a world swarming with munitions and motivations to inflict harm and wage war. Neighbors against neighbors, regional powers against rivals, and global hegemons against each other. Very often, in such a world, most publics almost always turn to any person, movement, organization, or state for their own protection and to preserve a sense of security regardless of the latter’s political, ethnonationalist or genocidal inclinations.
And, usually, such all-consuming uncertainty results in horrific epoch-making conflicts.
It has happened before, twice. Once, between 1914 and 1919, and again between 1939 and 1945, when fear, economic ruin, intense regional rivalries, permanent instability and almost irreversible decline culminated in those devastating world wars. One cannot plausibly deny that this is what we face now, a reality that could have been avoided had America not “shocked and awed” its way into Iraq, blitzing international norms and conditionalizing state sovereignty, thereby plunging the world into this strange darkness.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.