Earlier this year, former Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush fell into a media tangle over his brother’s legacy in Iraq.
Interviewed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in May, Bush struggled with a question concerning whether he thought, in hindsight, the war in Iraq was a mistake. After four days of squirming under media pressure, Bush settled on an opinion: yes, given what we know now.
However, this is only half of Jeb’s position.
The former governor of Florida moulded a position on Iraq that, while admitting a slight criticism of his brother, primarily targets Barack Obama as the cause of the current instability in Iraq:
“We just washed our hands of the effort…We declared success and then chaos occurred afterwards.”
For a long time it was impossible in Republican ranks to accept the mistakes of Iraq and acknowledge that American lives had been lost on an unnecessary war. Jeb Bush has taken a step towards doing so, but has shifted the onus of blame onto his brother’s successor for failing to secure the peace.
Jeb’s critique is founded on the argument that through ‘abandoning’ Iraqi allies in government, Obama sew the seeds for the ISIS uprising in 2014. However the unrest in Syria would likely have still taken place after the Arab Spring, the same disillusioned elements of Iraqi society would probably still have joined with radical jihadists in Syria, and been even further enraged, not deterred, by American troops policing their cities.
The more significant lesson is lost on Bush: America cannot simply fill international voids with an M1 Abrams tank and expect peace.
This unwavering belief that military power can bring about or prevent political change should have been dispelled after the Vietnam War.
The Iraq controversy taps into a central argument of recent American foreign policy. In George W. Bush’s memoirs, Decision Points, he lists the incidents where ‘nation building’ has been a success: Japan, South Korea, and West Germany.
In each case, the gravitational forces that bind and sustain nations were far greater than Iraq today. Added to which, for W’s three examples the immediacy of specific external threats catalysed U.S.-led nation building, in the forms of post war reconstruction, civil war, and the Cold War. Even with such advantages, in these cases American military presence lasted for decades and continues today.
The American people never agreed to an occupation of Iraq. With information that has thus far proven to be untrue, the Bush administration presented a plan for a swift, decisive war to topple Saddam and allow Iraqis to develop a liberal, capitalist democracy.
There is an assumptions among some American internationalists that people throughout the world want an American style of society and government, but are being held back by tyrants and despots. This has proven time and again to be far too a simplistic view on foreign affairs.
The history of the twentieth century is a testament to the fact that ideas cannot be defeated by sheer military force, but must be undermined and proven illegitimate. This point, it seems, is utterly lost on Senator Ted Cruz:
“When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.”
The failure to acknowledge the errors of the Iraq War and the strategies for defeating ISIS go hand in hand.
A purely military solution will not eradicate ISIS. Former Governor Huckabee has called for a coalition of nations to “bomb the absolute stink out of [ISIS]”, to be followed by ground troops. While escalating intervention may go a long way to shrinking the ability of ISIS to carry out its barbaric campaign, policymakers throughout American must also realise that a long term solution requires an understanding of what caused this wave of destruction.
Do Americans want to occupy a post-ISIS Iraq? Clearly not. Yet the terms of the debate must also reflect that in 2015 military power alone cannot create free, secure societies. If America is to maintain a leadership role in the world, air-strikes and marine battalions must be accompanied by smart policies and long term vision.