11 years ago, when I was 15 years old, I was a wholehearted supporter of the Iraq invasion. Like many Americans shortly after the 9/11 attack, I wanted to fight Islamic extremism and its threats wherever they may be.
The world is very different now. Americans and Britons generally view the Iraq invasion as a mistake, despite majority supporting it in 2003. People feel they were lied to about Saddam Hussein’s threat and that taxpayer money was wasted on a failed effort. At best, the effort was a waste of money, at worst the war empowered the very Islamic terrorists the war on terror was supposed to combat. At least that is the common view, and it is hard to argue with at the moment with Al-Qaedea linked ISIS occupying much of Iraq and Syria.
However, I don’t share the common consensus regarding Iraq and dealing with Islamic extremists in general. I think the way we view the Middle Eastern world is completely wrong. I would love to hear the thoughts of you all as well.
I. The Iraq Invasion was not a mistake. However, with the way we handled occupation of Iraq, we would in hindsight have been better off not invading Iraq.
I hold the very unique view that the invasion of Iraq was the right decision, and the invasion and decade long occupation of Afghanistan was a complete waste. Invading Iraq to me had a lot of potential justifications.
Saddam Hussein was in violation of international law, specifically at least 17 UN resolutions. Our intelligence said he possessed chemical weapons, and had a history of using them. He had invaded his neighbors before, and there was nothing to suggest he would not again if he had the chance. Iraq also served strategic advantages for occupation, similar to Japan and Germany which were successful. It had an an educated population, an intact civil service and it is situated strategically between two enemies of the west- Iran and Syria. Were things to escalate like they are now in Syria, it would have been very easy to move forces over to nip an escalation in the bud, wherever the problem might arise in the Middle East. It also has oil, which if produced could help rebuild their own economy and offset some of our own costs of invading the country.
Afghanistan by contrast has no strategic advantage to the US or the UK unless we are in the market of dealing narcotics. It is isolated. It is mountainous. Its population is largely illiterate and tribal. It served to frustrate empires from the USSR to the British to Alexander the Great. Yes, the Taliban housed Osama Bin Laden, but in the end our toppling of the Taliban just forced Bin Laden to reside in neighbouring Pakistan for the next decade. The invasion did not destroy Al-Qaedea,as the organisation is thriving from Libya to Somalia to Iraq, Syria and yes, Afghanistan. We will be leaving next year after nearly 14 years. We have almost nothing to show for or excuse the losses of lives in the seemingly pointless conflict.
So after seeing the mess Iraq is in today and the waste Afghanistan is in, how could I possibly look back and still support the Iraq invasion? Well, its simple. We fought the war wrong and we left for the wrong reasons.
When we went to Iraq, both Bush and Blair had this odd perception that we would be greeted as liberators and everybody would want to be westerners overnight. Now, I don’t blame Bush and Blair per say, “neo-cons” and New Labourites both had this belief that all people want is freedom and once you give them freedom they will be happy and grateful and do great things. And I do believe part of that sentiment is correct. People do yearn to be free, but they need the institutions to held mold a free society where everybody can live together. For instance, Great Britain is a free country, but the institutions we hold so dear were a long process and exercise in freedom. It was a struggle. The United States had a successful revolution, but we had British education and thinking. India is a functioning democracy, but it had long British rule. Japan and Germany are free nations, but they had long western occupation. The point is, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Bush and Blair wanted to be seen as liberators and didn’t want to be imperialists. However, the dirty little secret is that it is empires who change history, and when the Empire is overall good, for the better. (I strongly recommend Niall Ferguson’s book Empire on the subject). The British empire established global trade, eliminated global slave trade, spread representative democracy and defeated tyrannies spanning the centuries because they did the hard and sometimes dirty work of empire. It is because of them there is a United States, there is India, there is an Australia, Hong Kong and a Singapore. The US too, by initiating an occupation of Japan, South Korea, and Germany that somewhat continues to this day, helped mold societies that are prosperous and free from the ashes of there tyrannical regimes of World War II. The Roman Empire established civilisation in Europe that laid the bedrock for Western Europe. These empires also failed when they didn’t put the necessary time and resources into the projects, like in Africa or arguably Ireland. Bush and Blair however, weren’t interested in a 50 year occupation or truly doing the hard work of building a nation and changing a civilisation. They weren’t interested in sending and keeping large troop forces in the country until in 2007 Bush launched the “surge” which staved off a civil war and reduced violence temporarily. Bush and Blair ignored history to glorify themselves as liberators. Well, history is full of “liberators”- revolutionaries who can ideologically topple regimes and not restore order after- see almost every Revolution started after 1789. And as bad as Bush and Blair were, Obama, and to a lesser extent Gordon Brown, were even worse, because they totally abandoned Iraq to descend into the chaos it is now in.
The sad thing is, the chaos from Iraq is now common throughout the Middle East. We encouraged, under Obama especially, the overthrow of (admittedly horrible human beings) dictators throughout the region from Qaddafi to Mubarak and an attempt at Assad. The biggest problem I see with this “liberator” mentality, besides it being action without a backup plan like the French Revolution, is that it happened without the slightest consideration for the mindset of much the Islamic culture.
II. We need to make a better effort to understand the thinking of the Islamist instead of viewing everything through liberal Western eyes.
A couple weeks ago, I was listening to an interview on NPR (“National Public Radio”- kind of like the equivalent of BBC Radio 4) and the man being interviewed was a Mid East expert explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was explaining how the things most Muslims and ultra-Orthadox Jews value in the Middle East are not at all similar to what we care about in the west. It is a mindset that values religion over everything- including a good economy, good infrastructure or peace and security. Thus, why Sunnis and Shia very often won’t get along despite it being in their best interest to. I thought The Spectator recently did a very good comparison from our history comparing the current Islamic civil war to our civilisation’s 30 year war; I thought I would expand upon this comparison to help explain the current Islamic conflict, or how I see it.
In our own history’s not so distant past, people throughout Christendom’s thoughts and worldview were completely dominated by religion. Just like so many Muslims today, Christians entire worldview was dominated by religion and loyalty to it. Those outside of their religion were infidels who needed to be killed.
For example look at England during the Tudor age. When Thomas More was Henry VIII’s chancellor, the otherwise very brilliant philosopher insisted Protestant “heretics” had to die and their books needed to be burned. He had put to death the translator of the English bible William Tyndale, as there was no room for a reformation in More’s England. Then, Thomas Cromwell becomes Henry VIII’s chancellor. Thomas Cromwell was a Protestant and had the Catholic monasteries sacked and many Catholics, such as Thomas More, were put to death for being Catholic. Then, a few years later, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter Mary ascends to the throne and burns Protestants at the stake for virtue of being Protestant, such as Thomas Cranmer. Then comes Elizabeth. Elizabeth was very much ahead of her time in that she was driven by nationalism and not dogma when creating a Catholic-like Protestant Church of England and encouraging an English nationalism in general that was not driven by religious dogma. However, she too persecuted Catholics, all be it in a much more “moderate” form of fines rather than the usual method of death for your religious opponent. In the next century, Protestant extremists under Oliver Cromwell persecuted Anglicans and Catholics alike, while on the continent, Catholic France almost genocided the Protestant Huguenots, forcing the ones who survived to flee. And so on and so on. My point is the Middle East ‘s intolerant and violent Shia and Sunni are merely acting like westerners of a few centuries back.
What would help erase this Medieval mindset in the Middle East? Well there was our chance at changing the culture through imperialism but that “ship has sailed”. They need and probably will have an enlightenment at some point like we did that introduced the concepts of tolerance to our world. In the meantime, what should Britain do to combat Islamic extremism from infecting the UK?
III. Education is the Answer
The root of much evil in this Middle East situation has been the lack of historical knowledge or understanding. Bush and Blair didn’t understand that long, tough but fair imperialism works but that short term ideological regime change does not. In the west, we have been perplexed by the Middle East because we forgot how religious based civilisations think- our own before the Enlightenment and John Locke, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and John Stuart Mill for instance. And I believe this is because we don’t teach true history anymore or people how to think. This needs to change or otherwise our civilisation will be doomed to fail.
The Prime Minister last Sunday wrote a brilliant piece about the need to remind children of the greatness and uniqueness of British history and culture. I think that is a good start to combat the rise of extremist Islamic infiltration in certain schools susceptible to it. But more importantly, and for the vast majority of British schools that are not in danger of becoming Trojan Horse schools, I think it is important for making better patriotic citizens and leaders of tomorrow. People who are educated well, like the American Founding Fathers for instance, made good policy decisions. And I’m not just advocating teaching British history, but world history and especially Classical Education from the ancients so that our students can think analytically. If Tony Blair had better studied the trials and tribulations of the British Empire he would have had a better idea what to do in Iraq and that the British successes came when it was patient, worked hard, and were just rulers and that it failed when it tried to take short cuts. If George Bush and Barrack Obama had a better understanding of the Middle East they probably would have approached things differently too.
As it stands now, our leaders often lack proper historical education and thus make mistakes a good student of history would not make. The lack of good education our children are getting and have been getting for a couples generations now, are harming our nations. This harm is not just with respect to handling the Middle East, but on our very shores- as was seen in the Trojan Horse fiasco or in young people’s ignorance of our own civilisation’s proud history. Education must be improved for our civilisation’s sake. Teaching “British Values” is a good place to start.