Want to know why the world so often distrusts America? Because we’re a nation of amnesiacs. Our leaders get all hyped up about the need to remake some country halfway across the world, a country whose political pathologies, we are told, violate American values and menace American security. The American press joins in, the American people get dragged along, and next thing you know, American missiles are raining down on the place.
The tyrants flee; some other folks take over, and they seem like a big improvement at first. Then the locals grow unhappy with our presence; they begin killing U.S. soldiers in attacks that shock Americans and prompt an angry debate about getting out, which America eventually does. And then it’s done. The curtain goes down, the show is over, and barely anybody in America pays any attention to country X anymore. Public conversation, in fact, quickly moves on to countries Y and Z, where evil rulers or civil strife may or may not pose an intolerable threat to American values and American security. Of all the tools used to conduct American foreign policy, perhaps none is as pervasive as the Etch a Sketch.
So it was that last week terrorists killed more than 100 people in Iraq—a country that obsessed us just a few years ago—and barely anyone in America seemed to notice. The Obama adminstration issued a one-sentence statement. Prominent Republicans didn’t even do that. Neither Sean Hannity nor Bill O’Reilly mentioned it on their TV programs. The New Republic, which supported the war during my time as editor, didn’t mention the attacks either. The Weekly Standard, to its credit, did, noting that “whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, the simple fact of the matter is that without some U.S. combat forces on the ground America has no ability to fight AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] and affiliated groups directly.” All of which may well be true. But the opening clause—“whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq”—is oddly agnostic for a magazine that campaigned relentlessly for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow between 1997 and 2003.
So why should we still care about Iraq? First, because although al Qaeda terrorists detonated this week’s bombs, it was our invasion that created the chaos that has allowed them sanctuary; the blood is partly on our hands. Hours after the bombs hit, President Obama addressed the National Convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he bragged that “I pledged to end the war in Iraq honorably, and that’s what we’ve done ... We brought our troops home responsibly. They left with their heads held high, knowing they gave Iraqis a chance to forge their own future.” The crowd applauded. Imagine yourself as an Iraqi, hearing Obama’s banal, self-congratulatory words on CNN while living the blood-stained future that America’s invasion helped you forge. Or imagine you heard Mitt Romney’s speech the following day that barely mentioned Iraq but declared that “throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair ... Our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known.” Think how you’d feel about the United States.
The second reason we should care is that America’s foreign-policy debate desperately needs some measure of accountability. I’m not suggesting that politicians and pundits who got Iraq wrong be banished from public life. (This standard would leave me looking for other work). But neither should they be able to flee the scene of the disaster. Imagine if every time Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton or John Bolton or John McCain or William Kristol was interviewed about military intervention in Iran or Syria, the interviewer began by asking what they’ve learned about the subject from their experience supporting the war in Iraq. Simply asking the question would inject a much-needed humility into our foreign-policy discussion. Asking might also make viewers wonder why they so rarely hear from experts who did not support one of the greatest disasters in the history of American foreign policy. Who knows? If Mitt Romney knew that his foreign-policy surrogates were going to have to own up to their record on Iraq, he might even think twice before stocking his foreign-policy team with Bush holdovers.
The Iraq War didn’t end just because our troops left a little more than six months ago. Hundreds have died, and the number is likely to rise. The war is ongoing and it’s horrific, and the least we owe the people whose country we pulverized is to notice. And if we do notice, perhaps we’ll be slightly better able to understand why the world doesn’t always see us the way we see ourselves.