Friday, January 27, 2012

The Enduring Emotional Impetus to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Now that the Iraq war has officially ended, it would be wise to reflect on why the invasion occurred in the first place. Will the conditions that led to that invasion again be ripe for another invasion of someplace else? A key ingredient of those conditions, one not publicly questioned, is still quite present today. This ingredient provides the emotional impetus for attacking others.

We must not forget that the invasion occurred with the overwhelming support of the public. Former president George W. Bush successfully portrayed the invasion as a strike, not just against “the terrorists,” but against evil itself. Through a thought process that made emotional connections but ignored evidence and was entirely illogical, he linked into one bundle the “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, terrorists everywhere, and anyone opposed to “freedom.” If these connections made sense to the public then, what is to prevent similar connections from making sense again to support attacking or invading another target?

These illogical and non-factual connections were emotionally unified by an underlying premise: that we must fight against evil. It is this very fight that we must question. While evil by definition is always bad and should be fought, it is not necessarily true that evil can be identified as contained in identifiable evil people who should be killed. Yet, that identification is the unquestioned emotional premise behind the invasion of Iraq, and, perhaps too, behind the currently escalating drone killings and the military threats to Iran.

The problem with the premise, that you fight evil by killing evil people, is that it contradicts the primary principle underlying democracy, the principle of human equality. This principle was, for example, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, restated by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, and reaffirmed by President Obama in his inaugural address in 2009. But it was abandoned when Iraq was invaded. We cannot consistently say, “All people are created equal,” and, “But some people are evil and must be killed.” The contradiction was not apparent to the nation when it invaded Iraq. It still isn’t.

It is not a coincidence that former president Bush defined the goal as “freedom,” not as human equality. By giving little or no weight to the idea of equality, it was relatively easy to discuss the invasion with little consideration of its potential cost to the Iraqi people. While the potential for casualties among American soldiers was discussed prior to the invasion, there was little or no public thought given to the potential casualties of the citizens of Iraq. Did we care that tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s would die, either directly, or indirectly from destroyed infrastructure, as a result of this regime change? Is so, did it matter? Even today we usually do not discuss Iraqi deaths in numbers as we do for American troops. In the fight against the rulers who were deemed to be evil, it seemed not to matter how many Iraqis would get killed in the process. They were considered to be just “collateral damage.” As a result of this way of thinking, the Iraqi people themselves were not regarded as equals but as weak, perhaps child-like, people who had to have their government overthrown for them by superior freedom-loving people. This deprived the Iraqi people of the dignity and the pride they would have obtained by overthrowing their own dictator, as is occurring elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Iraq, our nation cannot be proud of what it has accomplished, not only for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost for false reasons, but also by leaving behind a shaky, sectarian quasi-democracy that has only a possibility of maturing into the real thing. Apparently what was left behind does not really matter once the targeted evil has been eliminated. That the government left behind can hardly be called democratic shows that real democracy, one that includes respect for human rights, cannot be imposed by military force.

Thus, the invasion was based on a false idea about the meaning of democracy. The Founders themselves could not see the conflict between the principle of equality and the reality around them, for they made exceptions to human equality: for women, slaves and Native Americans, for example. But the principle of human equality allows for no exceptions. The exceptions are created by an anti-democratic way of thinking that apparently is a persistent carry-over from the pre-democratic past of humankind. Over time, our nation has recognized some of these inconsistent exceptions and addressed many of them. But the inconsistency remains whenever, as a matter of national policy, the nation acts on the anti-democratic premise that it knows who is evil and should be killed. The invasion of Iraq, regardless of the outcome, was a blow not for democracy but against the very principle of equality that underlies democracy. If we do not question the anti-democratic premise of that invasion, it will happen again somewhere else. Who will be the next victims?

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