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May 4, 2007

Iraq War May End With an Isolationist US

by Leon Hadar

The war which resulted in the ouster of a dangerous despot ended and the US troops, who had fought in a bloody conflict overseas, were returning home. But the human and financial costs of the war were very high and its promise of helping to spread democracy in regions that had been ruled by authoritarian regimes did not materialize.

Instead, the war led to the rise of radical forces that threatened to draw their neighbors into new wars while producing even more anti-democratic sentiment. It was not surprising that the American people, angry and frustrated by the outcome of the war, were increasingly supporting disengagement from a threatening world. Isolationism, protectionism and anti-immigration attitudes and even xenophobia became more rampant.

No, the above is not a forecast about the shape of things to come in post-Iraq War America. It is a brief description of some of the trends in the US in the aftermath of the nation's intervention in World War I in Europe.

Many analysts have compared the current US military quagmire in Iraq to the costly American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s, and have warned that the diplomatic and military consequences of the current intervention in the Middle East would resemble the aftermath of the US-led war in Southeast Asia.

But a more appropriate historical analogy in discussing the impact of the war in Mesopotamia is the disastrous outcome of American fighting in World War I. When then-president Woodrow Wilson decided to deploy American forces on the side of the British, the French and the Russians, most Americans supported the move that was regarded as a way of dealing with the threat posed by Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm against peace in Europe and eventually against US national security.

Most Americans also believed President George W. Bush when he had warned them of the grave threat that Iraq was, under Saddam Hussein. While Saddam was depicted by Mr. Bush as a dangerous tyrant and American intelligence was manipulated to raise the fear of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the Kaiser was portrayed by Mr. Wilson as a bloody autocrat, and fuzzy intelligence about alleged German plans to control Mexico was spun in order to mobilize the support of the media and the people for US intervention.

Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bush were successful in their campaigns to ignite pro-war sentiments. And both promoted their respective military interventions in idealistic terms. Mr. Wilson had promised to make the world "safe for democracy" and to use American power to plant the seeds of freedom and self-determination in Europe.

Mr. Bush committed his nation to a Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, envisioning post-Saddam Iraq as a model of democracy for the entire Broader Middle East. But as World War I failed to achieve its ambitious goals and more information was provided to Congress and the media about the reasons for American involvement in the war, the public and its representatives turned against the president and his war campaign.

The image of a triumphant Mr. Wilson presiding over the 1919 Paris Peace Conference was replaced with that of a politically and physically crippled president who had to face an angry Congress determined to challenge his vision for a postwar world.

In the same way, the victorious Mr. Bush standing on an American battleship and proclaiming the successful conclusion of the war in Iraq with a "Mission Accomplished" sign behind him on May 2, 2003, was displaced by a Commander-in-Chief who failed to bring order to an Iraq that seemed engulfed in a civil war, who saw his popularity drop to bottom-lows and who had to deal with a more assertive and antagonistic Congress.

The winners that emerged from Mr. Bush's Iraq war were the radical Shi'ite groups in Baghdad and their allies, the clerics in Iran, creating expectations of rising tension between the pro-American Arab-Sunni regimes and a radical Shi'ite alliance led by Iran.

The Kaiser, like Saddam in 2003, was ousted from power. Gone also were the authoritarian regimes that ruled the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. But replacing the Czar in Russia were the even more ruthless Bolsheviks while in Europe and in the Middle East, a militant nationalism took hold, leading eventually to the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and other Fascist dictators, and to the seeds of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.

As Congress launched major investigations of US intervention in World War I, with new revelations pointing to various conspiracies between businesses and politicians to involve the US in that conflict in Europe, the American people turned more and more inward, with Congress refusing to support American membership in the League of Nations and backing a series of protectionist measures that helped produce the economic depression.

Indeed, public opinion polls are now suggesting that post-Iraq War, Americans are also becoming more skeptical, if not hostile, towards the notion that they have the obligation to resolve global conflict, liberalize world trade and open the country's gates to new immigrants.

As in the case of Mr. Wilson and his war, the main legacy of Mr. Bush and his war would probably be a more nationalist and isolationist US.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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