Center of Concern | Tue, Oct 14, 2008
When the lead question on Iraq in the first presidential candidates’ debate was posed, What are the lessons learned from Iraq? I waited expectantly for what seemed to be the only possible answer: “violence begets violence.” Another might have been “war is a defeat for humanity,” Pope John Paul II’s impassioned cry. I further had hoped for expressions of profound remorse over the destruction of so much life on all sides, U.S. military families scarred forever by the loss of their loved ones or the broken bodies that came back, as well as the incomprehensible figure of over one million Iraqis estimated dead, and millions more lives cast in disarray from the violence.
While Barack Obama asserts that the war in Iraq was wrong and must be ended, I fear that neither candidate has learned lessons necessary to reverse course in Iraq and beyond, and repair the damaged U.S. reputation abroad. Unlearned as lessons, the catastrophic mistakes we’ve made in Iraq will be repeated. Violence in the region will continue to flourish, and the global common good will continue to suffer.
John McCain’s main lesson learned from Iraq is that the U.S. military “surge” worked and violence is down. This is misleading. The drop in violence started pre-surge, due to a number of factors, including that many Baghdad neighborhoods already had undergone sectarian cleansing, and also that there have been massive population shifts—with up to one out of five Iraqis having fled their homes, living either as internally displaced or as refugees. These are hardly measures of success. What’s not mentioned is that al-Queda was not even present in Iraq, pre-war. Also not mentioned, or recognized, is that the drops in violence mask the volatility of the situation in Iraq and will be only temporary unless a comprehensive process of reconciliation and reconstruction can advance.
Obama has proposed that instead of being in Iraq, more U.S. military troops need to be put into Afghanistan to “take out” Bin Laden, for therein lie the connections to 9-11 and terrorism. First, the “violence begets violence” scenario looms large. The U.S. military presence already in Afghanistan, including air strikes killing civilians, many of them children, is increasing public support for the Taliban. Also, reliance on military strategies to address terrorism fails to engage the host of non-military interventions that could be brought to bear, and which depend on multi-country collaboration.
I’m not naïve. We’re in a campaign, and I know that presidential candidates give tremendous importance to appearing “commander-in-chief-ish.” Flexing the U.S. military superpower muscle is fanned as the depiction of strength. With the U.S. economy crumbling, the default to demonstrate military power might even further be used to compensate for our dwindling economic clout.
Real strength, however, is most evidenced in acknowledging errors and learning from mistakes. The devastating human and economic costs of what our country has done in Iraq merit the utmost attention in these final weeks of electoral discourse.
What our political leaders don’t see, or won’t say, we must. The unjust, unnecessary, illegal, immoral war on Iraq has ignited a spiral of violence that has unraveled an ancient nation, has done more to fuel violence than stop it, and has robbed our national treasury.
Catholic Social Teaching and a vision of Gospel nonviolence suggest policy directions that embrace international cooperation and replace reliance on military measures with diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Iraq and establish a just peace.
There is a way out of Iraq. Our nation’s leaders are just not taking it. A lasting peace depends on a decisive end to the U.S. occupation, a national reconciliation process involving all factions of Iraqi society, and a comprehensive, regional peace plan. The U.S. does not have the legitimacy or credibility in the region to broker such a peace process and needs to turn over its authority, respecting Iraqi sovereignty and control over its people and natural resources. A reinvigorated Iraq, working with the support of the United Nations, the Arab League and other regional actors, is better able to chart a path to help heal the divisions caused by the war, decide on security arrangements that would lead to a stable Iraq, and build long-term peace in the region.
Diplomacy matters. If this lesson isn’t learned, nor a peace process pursued, than the U.S. could be in Iraq, as Senator McCain had said, for one hundred years.
When John Paul II died, our current president heralded him as peacemaker, but the lessons of his teaching were lost. After the launch of the first Gulf War , our Pope repeated his cry “’Never again war! No, never again war,’ which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a solution to the very problems which provoked the war…”
“War was not the answer” for Iraq. Is it not time to learn that lesson?
For more reflection and information on the war in Iraq see Election 2008: www.coc.org/election2008.
Pax Christi USA has produced a 30-second TV issue ad on Iraq directed to Catholic voters. It will be launched tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15 at Pax Christi USA's web site www.paxchristiusa.org.