“We must resist our dreams of managing history.” – Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Irony of American History” (1952)
When you study how the U.S. goes to war, there is a prevalent though not perfect pattern. The triggering event is often a sudden crisis that galvanizes popular opinion and becomes the immediate occasion for military intervention but subsequently is exposed as a misguided perception or outright fabrication.
The Mexican War began when President Polk cited an attack on American troops in Texas – troops he had deliberately placed there to provoke Mexico.
More recently, the Vietnam War moved into high gear when President Lyndon B. Johnson used an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify massive military intervention in Southeast Asia. The incident occurred in disputed waters, and one supposed gunboat attack never really happened. The enemy might very well have been a pod of whales.
This pattern is not perfect. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not a figment of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s imagination.
American military intervention in Iraq, however, fits the pattern perfectly.
President George W. Bush, apparently persuaded by the unburdened convictions of Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear capacity, and that there were clear connections between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Both claims were concocted. But the dark shadow of 9/11 hung ominously over all deliberations in that moment, so the CIA bent the arc of the evidence to fit the fabrication.
When the facts became clear and the justification for our military intervention evaporated, a new rationale needed to be invented. As recent events in Iraq have clearly demonstrated, this democratic dream was always an illusion.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is never going to create an inclusive, pluralistic government, not just because he is stubborn but because the Iraqi people do not want one.
What we are witnessing now is the partitioning of Iraq into three regional sovereignties – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – which was always the inevitable consequence of our toppling of Hussein.
The sectarian forces raging in Iraq and much of the Middle East are beyond our control. Our big mistake was not failing to leave a residual force in Iraq in 2011 but invading the country in 2003.
The recent decision to send 300 American troops back into Iraq reveals that even Obama does not get it.
And if some horrific incident befalls one of our ships in the Persian Gulf, or if catastrophe strikes our so-called military advisors, prompting calls for more American troops, my advice to all reporters is to double-check history, and your sources.
JOSEPH J. ELLIS is a professor of history at Williams College. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation,” among other books. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.