America’s dangerous `overextension’ in Iraq
September 18, 2003
In 1966, Sen. J. William Fulbright, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a book called “The Arrogance of Power.” In this work Fulbright gave his views on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. I believe that Fulbright’s insight is applicable to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Fulbright wrote:
“Having done so much and succeeded so well, America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it. Other great nations, reaching this critical juncture, have aspired to too much, and by overextension of effort have declined and then fallen.
“The causes of the malady are not entirely clear but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history: power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations – to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. …
“What romantic nonsense this is. And what dangerous nonsense in the age of nuclear weapons. …
“If America has a service to perform in the world – and I believe she has – it is in large part the service of her own example. In our excessive involvement in the affairs of other countries we are not only living off of our assets and denying our own people the proper enjoyment of their resources, we are also denying the world the example of a free society enjoying its freedom to the fullest. This is regrettable indeed for a nation that aspires to teach democracy to other nations. As Edmund Burke said, `Example is the school of mankind, and they will have no other.’
“Gradually but unmistakably America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world. The measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot’s duty of dissent.”
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There was almost universal domestic and international agreement on the Bush administration’s initial response to September 11, 2001. The people who had organized the attack, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization, were being given sanctuary by the fundamentalist Islam Taliban regime of Afghanistan, and when the Taliban refused to turn bin Laden over to the United States, the country took the correct action in conquering and occupying Afghanistan.
So, with the above in mind, a reasonable person might ask, “Why is the invasion and occupation of Iraq causing such international and domestic discord?” The short answer is that there is absolutely no evidence that Saddam Hussein supported Al-Qaida or international terrorism. No Iraqis were involved in the 9/11 attack (although 46 percent of Americans erroneously think otherwise). No Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been found, so the claim that Hussein was planning on secretly supplying al-Qaida does not ring true.
It is beyond doubt that Hussein was a tyrant who tortured, murdered and stole from his people. But if the United States used brutal leadership as justification for invading countries, we would never stop. Claiming that we invaded Iraq to rid the world of an evil dictator is a red herring. The Bush administration invaded Iraq because it believed the overthrow of Hussein would benefit the United States. That’s it – nothing more and nothing less. Unfortunately for the president, there is no evidence that Hussein was plotting to attack the United States. He, like Fidel Castro, was an embarrassment to a failed U.S. policy, but he was not a direct threat.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq changed everything. To many people outside the United States, America went from being the victim of an unwarranted sneak attack to a big bully throwing its weight around in blatant disregard of international opinion.
The occupation of Iraq has energized the Islamic terrorist network. The porous borders of Iraq allow terrorists easy access to American and Allied forces.
The “guns or butter” debate has already started. With a national debt of $6.8 trillion (that breaks down to $23,400 for every American citizen) and an annual deficit of $500 billion, the billions that will be spent in the attempt to pacify and reconstruct Iraq will only increase the United States’ economic problems. And, to state the obvious, every dollar spent on Iraq is a dollar that cannot be spent on domestic issues or fighting terrorism in other areas like Afghanistan.
War should not be entered into lightly. None of the top officials in the Bush administration has had combat experience except Colin Powell, and he was the only one of the group that opposed the Iraq invasion. The lives lost, and those that will continue to be lost, breed hatred and resentment on both sides and will make resolution of the conflict even more difficult.
So what to do? As our mothers told us, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Even if the invasion and occupation of Iraq was wrong, so would be an American pullout. Abandoning Iraq in the next couple of years would create a power vacuum that could destabilize the entire region and bring down many of the Muslim governments that support us. A Middle East totally hostile to American interests would be a bad thing. As much as we might be frustrated by our dependency on Middle Eastern oil, it’s a fact of life that we can’t overlook.
Hopefully we will eat some crow, get as much help as possible from the rest of the world to assist the Iraqis in creating a stable government that will not be hostile to the United States, and then get out. We should also start paying more attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That conflict is the No. 1 factor fueling Islamic terrorism, and until it is resolved terrorism will be a fact of life.
Don’t despair. Although the War on Terrorism is going to take a long time, we will win it. We might come out of it the worse for wear, but hopefully we will come out of it with our institutions and values intact. As a Vietnam veteran and a retired history teacher, I wish I could also write that we will learn some valuable lessons from our mistakes. Sadly, I doubt it.
George Burson, a former infantry company commander in Vietnam and international baccalaureate coordinator at Aspen High School, says, “One of the reasons I got into teaching was because I couldn’t understand why we were over in Vietnam.”