The horrors of Syria's brutal, unending civil war are difficult to stomach, but for the United States, the choice is essentially between remaining on the sidelines or making matters worse. On one side is a ruthless dictator, and on the other are rebels whose cause is just but tactics often abominable, and whose ranks now include al-Qaida. This is a microcosm of the Middle East, a place where the options are often only bad and worse.
Ten years ago Tuesday, the United States started a war in Iraq born both of startling naivety and boundless cynicism. Exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, still fresh six months later, the administration of George W. Bush invaded Iraq with the intention of changing the country and the Middle East more to its liking, a plan that was doomed from its inception. The White House, of course, was also out to settle old scores from the George H.W. Bush administration, and had thought the fight was over when Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In reality, the fight had just begun, which may have dawned on the White House's oil men when the oil fields they had looked forward to appropriating went up in flames. Of all the options confronting America when it came to Iraq and the Middle East, the Bush White House chose the worst one -- needless, unjustified war.
The damage done to the United States over the past decade by this war is irreparable, and in many ways, ongoing. America had the world's support and the moral high ground when it invaded Afghanistan in 2002 in pursuit of al-Qaida, but it surrendered both when it turned away from that war to its war of aggression. The revelations of torture conducted by U.S. troops in the Abu Ghraib prison, as well as the killing of Iraqi civilians by the hired guns of Blackwater, sunk the United States further into an immoral quagmire.
The absence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, which the United Nations knew didn't exist and was ridiculed by the White House for saying so, increased public cynicism about government. Elements of the media took a hit as well, as they led the cheerleading and abandoned the objectivity and skepticism that are their lifeblood. Ten years ago this month, "embedded" journalists raced into Iraq along with U.S. troops for what they anticipated would be a quick and easy joy ride to victory. The major media outlets, the TV networks in particular, were embedded all right -- they were in bed with those they were supposed to be reporting upon dispassionately.
President Bush -- who briefly became G.I. George when he donned a flight suit to declare "mission accomplished" when the bloody disaster was still in its infancy -- wasn't going to part with his tax cuts just because he was fighting two wars. The first U.S. war in history that was essentially paid for with a credit card was instrumental in creating the massive deficits we wrestle with today.
Finally, the war in Iraq cost the lives of 4,488 U.S. soldiers, their caskets kept away from prying cameras when they were flown home so as not to upset flag-waving Americans. Roughly 32,000 were seriously wounded, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter crawling to an end long after its purpose did, resulted in sickening, unprecedented levels of soldier suicides, head injuries and mental disorders. Wars with no front lines, no purpose and no end game do horrific things to the minds of the men and women who fight them.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been out on spin patrol to mark the 10th anniversary, and while it is easy to believe his assertions that he, not the president, was the true architect of the war, not much else passes the credibility test. This was the man, after all, who said U.S. troops would be "greeted with flowers" and who underestimated the cost of the war by a factor of 10. Still, men like Mr. Cheney can't do damage without enablers, and Congress, much of the media and way too many Americans were complicit by supporting the war without considering its poor rationale and possible ramifications.
The Iraq War did at least trigger the welcome return to diplomacy under President Obama, with the neoconservative dogs of war surfacing briefly to encourage some inflammatory foreign policy rhetoric from Mitt Romney before returning to the shadows. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is working the diplomatic channels in Syria, and while the likelihood of success, is slim Americans have no interest in pursuing the alternative. The lessons of Vietnam, sadly, went unlearned or were forgotten. The many lessons of the Iraq War must not be.