You know, the forces of the United States have been engaged in Iraq since January 1991. That’s seventeen years. This year will see the last American election in which all eligible voters were born before our conflict with Iraq. Our conflict with Iraq has lasted longer than the conflict in Vietnam (dating that war either from the Hanoi Politburo’s decision for war in 1959 or President Kennedy’s dispatch of military advisers), longer than the Weimar Republic, longer than the combined terms of Hoover and Roosevelt, longer than the Civil War plus Reconstruction, longer than the period from Napoleon’s coup to his defeat at Waterloo . . . it’s lasted a long time.
And I do think this is the right way to look at things. The 100-hour war of 1991 ended with a mere cease-fire. The post-Gulf War cease fire left a substantial American presence in the region, and American and allied aircraft spent the next decade actively enforcing the no-fly zones and conducting intermittant bombings of Iraqi targets. None of this is to suggest that we were under any obligation to initiate the Iraq War in 2003, nor that doing so was a good idea. But I do think that, conceptually, it makes more sense to think of the two wars in Iraq as parts of a single conflict rather than separate wars. That’s how the architects of the Iraq War thought of them, and that’s how the Iraqis and neighboring states think of them.
This is all by way of putting the debate we currently have before us in context. McCain’s “100 Year War” has been much mocked, but we’ve been engaged in Iraq for more than 1/6th of that time period already. What he’s talking about is continuing along a road that we’ve been travelling for three Presidencies. I am very eager to see a serious foreign policy debate in our Presidential election, in part because while I am clear in my mind that the Iraq War (which I supported at the time) has been a disastrous mistake, I am very unclear in my mind what set of principles I should subscribe to that would have taken us down a better path then, or would take us down a better path now. But a serious critique of the Iraq war needs to go much deeper than a critique of the way we went to war (again) in 2003, or the way we planned for the aftermath. One such critique is the pure anti-interventionism espoused by Ron Paul, a critique I find unpersuasive for a variety of reasons. Obama has made his opposition to the war in 2002 a centerpiece of his campaign, but he has given somewhat mixed signals about to what degree he’s talking about taking another road and to what degree he’s just talking about driving more carefully – and this has been in the context of a Democratic party primary. I’ll be very interested to hear, as we move into general election mode, how deep a critique he puts before the electorate as a whole, and how persuasive I find it.